Throwing the book at ebooks

My friend swears she will never convert to e-books. It’s not that she’s anti-technology or she prefers the feel or smell of books. It’s because of the lack of violence.

“The main problem with reading books on a Kindle or ebook reader,” my friend explains, “is that you can’t throw the Kindle at the wall in disgust.”

The demise of the “dead-tree” book has been predicted and retracted and redefined and re-predicted and retracted until we are all, quite frankly, a bit sick of it and wish they would shut up until they have actually decided. They said radio would do it in the 1930’s, they said TV would kill the publishing industry in 1960’s and they’re still hollering on about today. I’m not here to argue the technology and the sociology of how we will read in the years to come (my fellow Boomerang blogger, Joel, will better serve you on that one at his blog). I am here to tell you one simple thing.

I am not in this. Yet.

Until they invent a reader that you can throw at walls, spill coffee on and whirl about in your handbag bashing it off things with no worries as to its safety, the dead-tree industry will be getting most of my cash.

This is not sentiment, this is necessity. I am what my teachers called “spirited”, my father calls “a bit rough on things” and my mother refers to as “a bloody menace”. I am informed that liquids and ebook readers are not a match made in heaven and this could be an issue.

When presented with a book, some part of my brain returns to my those wonderful first books of my childhood and expects them to have waterproof and chewable covers so when the sippy-cup of juice (or cup of mocha) is inevitable bumped, the liquid will slide neatly off the covers, averting a tantrum at ruined and sticky pages.

And, worse than that, what will I do when I want to throw a tantrum? Hurling a book at the wall in a fit of pique could suddenly become a very costly habit. And it’s cost me enough already. The first book I ever hurled at the wall was Dicken’s Hard Times, which then promptly bounced off into a filthy bin. My classmate were hugely impressed at the gesture, thinking I meant it. I was in fact aghast that I was going to have buy a second copy of that lumbering monstrosity of a book.

(I eventually did get to like Dickens but my throw still stands. Hard Times was a terrible book to make fourteen-year-olds read. Took valuable time away from my Stephen King’s.)

I’ve developed quite a throw; hard enough to be satisfying, but soft enough not to crack plaster after the time I had to explain to the landlord that Melvyn Bragg’s Credo was a terrible read but excellent as a ballistic and that, yes, I would pay for those damages.

I’m not suggesting that you always bin rejected books with extreme prejudice but deleting the file doesn’t have the same cleansing effect on your psyche. Try it sometime. Erase an ebook from your PC. You can hammer that “delete” as hard as you want but it’s still anti-climatic. No one cares. But chuck it in a bin or set it on fire and you’ll have everyone asking why. Especially if you decide to do this with some of the major religious texts, although I’d recommend perhaps just going with a more amusing method of disposing of these – send bibles to the Scientologists and books on Scientology to your local representative perhaps?

Don’t get be wrong, I can see massive advantages in ebooks. You can take 1,000 books on holiday for the same space as you normally used on a magazine. School kids will no longer be forced to warp their backs with massive textbooks. (There was a ten year old on my train I used to refuse a seat off daily, because her bag was bigger that her – and indeed my – torso.) This is a good thing, although it will mean that they will no longer be able to enliven the duller texts by writing in them and drawing mustaches and naughty bits all over the pictures.

They’re smaller. They’re lighter. They’re better. I get it. But I just enjoying hurling things at the wall too much. Today Credo, tomorrow William and Kate – The Love Story. Will you join me? And what would you throw?

2NN8AYGNG2PY

What Not To Gift Part 2 – Expensive Ink and Pricey Poems

It’s that annual Christmas question – what do you buy the person who has everything? How about a copy – in fact, the only copy – of the world’s most expensive book?

Tomas Hartmann, a German writer who calls himself “greatest philosopher of all time,” announced in 2008 he would sell his book. As in book singular. His masterwork of philosophy took thirty years to write, and boiled that wisdom down to just thirteen pages and a price tag of €153 million (about 230 million Australian dollars).

And, lest you be worried that the story is wooden or the prose less than stellar for that sort of price-tag, the author was quick to assure you this was, in fact, a bit of a bargain. At just $17.8m a page, he claimed the book would “answer the three final important questions of humankind in less than three hundred sentences: Where do we come from? Where are we going? And: What is the real task we still have to take on?”

If that seems a little out of your budget, Hartmann also planned to sell just 5,000 copies of his book of philosophical poems at the bargain price of $2,300 each. (However, he did keep a caveat on that stating that if he won a literary award, the price would increase to €1.53 million per book.) I haven’t read the book, as it is unaccountably unavailable in either Boomerang or my local library, but I can take a good stab at the distilled wisdom of Hartmann’s thirty years of philosophical thought.

I have got it down to just eight words and I give to you here – for free – as my little Christmas gift to you all.

A fool and his money are soon parted.

And to think I could have charged $40 million or so a word. And at least my version is easily available. You will have to find out where the copy of the The Task is as Mr Hartmann stopped displaying the book in Dubai in 2009 and my google-fu has proved too weak to find out whether it was sold and how much it actually sold for.

If your enthusiasm for the most expensive book in the world is undaunted but you really don’t have the time to hunt for it, more easily traceable is Leonardo Da Vinci’s “Codex Leicester”. Penned by the Renaissance Man himself, this notebook of original drawings, notes and sketches fetched a cool $30.8 million dollars when it last sold in 1994. You’ll have no issues finding it, although getting an appointment to discuss buying it could be fun – it was snapped up by Microsoft founder Bill Gates.

Less unique but still pricey is Shakespeare’s “First Folio,” a first edition collection of the Bard’s plays. It’s estimated 250 copies remain of the 750 copies published in 1623, and a complete copy broke records in 2006 for being the most expensive book ever sold at auction, going under the hammer for just over US$5m.

If this still sounds a little extreme, you can go for something more modern. The die hard Hobbit fan in your life would probably love a copy of the special 50th anniversary hardback edition of J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of The Rings which comes in at just under a hundred dollars, and fashionistas can be pleased for less than a price of some shoes by Avedon Fashion 1944-2000, a photographic compendious of spanning six decades of one of fashion’s most iconic photographers, which will add style to any bookshelf.

Or, of course, there’s always gift vouchers. While I know some people consider them less dramatic than gifts as a present, but I can assure you that a gift voucher that goes into three figures, let alone the million dollar bracket, will definitely make their jaw drop.

More Profanity Please – Won’t Someone Please Think Of The Children?

I was eleven when I read my first adult scene. And the only reason I was reading it was because I wasn’t meant to.

Judy Blume’s Forever is a story about negotiating family stress and pressures, what happens when your parents divorce,  bereavement and teenage relationships and contains a scene with – in the words of our teacher – “young people being bold”. Despite that scene, it’s not really what you could call pornographic. It’s a touching story, written for younger readers, about negotiating the hormonal and emotional teenage rollercoaster with some maturity and forethought. So, thinking carefully of our welfare, they banned it.

And now we were all trying to read it, passing one dog-eared copy around the class. Now, lets be clear here; we weren’t sure what the book was about. We didn’t know if it was any good. All we knew was it had been banned and that meant that we absolutely had to read it.

For much the same reason we ended up sneaking around Flowers in The Attic a year later, not for the story or prose, but for the incest scene that scandalised our parents and teachers. Thanks to someone deciding not only should their child not read it, but an entire task force of teachers needed to be mobilised to combat the threat of us reading it, they succeeded in running a publicity campaign that turned a mediocre horror tale into that year’s in-school must-read. Same with the horror that was the Sweet Valley High books.

I may never forgive them. If you’ve been forced to sit through any of the Sweet Valley High books, I’m sure you’ll understand. But they were banned, and so I had to read them.

Which pretty much suggests that the ideal way to get kids to read the classics may not be to extol their virtues but to shove in a few swearwords and stick “Adult Themes” on the front. That big red “Over 18‘s” label might as just read “PICK ME”.

Music, of course, realised this years ago. Many rock and pop musicians in the nineties found that if you hadn’t some swearing in your album, and this earned the “Parental Advisory – Explicit Lyrics” sticker on the cover, your record label would ask you to put in a few choice words.  Nothing sells to kids and teenagers like being told they shouldn’t buy.

Literature in Australia does have a classification system but books are rarely labelled. Books only have to display it if they are classified Category 1 or higher – basically for pornographic work with no literary merit (hallo again, Ms Andrews). Books that exceed the censor’s limit (racist and terrorist propaganda, for example) are not banned, but refused classification. Which is pretty much the same thing only a nicer way of saying the same thing – think retrenched rather than fired.

But maybe we need to get banning and labelling. Without those huge red labels, teens are missing out on the huge amount of controversy and smut that a classical education in literature can give you. Think of Othello, with murder and madness and racism and sex. Think of Wuthering Heights; physical and psychological torture that shocked readers when it was released, as well as a hint of possible incest.  Treasure Island, with the pirates being old school as opposed to Captain Jack- less swashbuckling, more murder, blasphemy and betrayal.

Perhaps it’s time to rude up the reputation of our classics. Update the rude words in Shakespeare so they resemble their contemporary counterparts. Highlight the fact that novels such as Lord of the Flies and On The Road, with their themes of war, torture, sex and drugs, are completely unsuited to younger readers. Cover the books in stickers labelling them immoral, profane and for adults only, thus making them irresistible to anyone under the age of 15.

After all, won’t someone please think of the children?

http://www.boomerangbooks.com.au/On-the-Road/Jack-Kerouac/book_9780141037486.htm

What Not to Gift – Part 1, the Kris Kringle

Christmas is coming, and your co-workers want their pressies. Much like your credit limit and your waistline, office relationships can be stretched to breaking point by Christmas’s excesses. Gifting books in the anonymous Kris Kringle may seem like a great way to solve who-to-buy-a-present issues, but you can still get it wrong.

Not a great idea, even if their name is Bruce Banner.Make sure, first off, that your gift doesn’t identify you, in addition to being selfish. Don’t gift your co-workers a voucher for your side-business or an obviously pre-read book midway through a series you have been raving about. Don’t gift them books that you ask to borrow before the wrapping has come off. Try not to draw attention to their short-comings; resist to urge buy them books like “Anger Management for Dummies” or books on job-hunting.

And well-meant presents can go wrong too. Don’t gift your co-workers – no matter how much they might appreciate them – with semi-pornographic fiction, non-fiction or How To Make Love Like a Porn Star, which might bring a little joy but also a lot of attention from HR and Legal.

It might seem tempting to buy a business book, given that it’s professional. But this can not only be disappointing for the receiver, it can lead to MORE work in the New Year if they are the easily impressed type.

I still haven’t forgiven someone for introducing a former manager of mine to Jim Collins’s business development classic book, Good To Great. When we re-opened in the New Year we discovered we were stuck with endless meetings on the Hedgehog Concept (which isn’t a reference to partying like Mad Monday at the NRL, for those worried) which required discussing what our company could do better than anyone else in the world in order to clarify our business plan.

Business books are meant to be inspiring, but for those of us who are occasionally visited by the Reality Fairy thinking like this can be little difficult. I mean, best in the world? Seems a little unrealistic to set the bar that high, kind of like aiming to get eleven out of ten  – impossible unless you are a Fortune 500 CEO or on Junior Masterchef. But the book is firm on the matter. So, in order to satisfy the frothingly insane enthusiasm of the Jim Collins fan, you end up doing ever more specialised “best” parameters. “We believe are the best in the world at being a SME accounting firm who all wear purple.”

No?

“How about who all wear purple and speak in a Monty Pythonesque Frenchman accent?”

(Good to Great also required that we talk about our BHAG, or Big Hairy Audacious Goal, which reminded me more as a phrase of parts of the anatomy usually covered by pants than work-related. Come on, if a stranger on a train asked if you wanted to see their Big Hairy Audacious Goal, you’d be switching carriages pretty fast, right?)

So, what should you get co-workers? Good ideas include books that suggest you know they have a life outside the office, such as a book on their hobbies, interests or destinations. Most foodies will enjoy a cookbook (and most cookbooks, such as Pho’s Kitchen, are also pretty as coffee table books) and many gardening books can be far more fun to peruse than actually getting out there and working on your yard. Or, if you’re not sure of any of their interests – or even what they look like – you could go for something interesting but unlikely to offend, such as the hilarious Is That Thing Diesel, or the Gruen Transfer‘s offering.

And if you don’t think you can get them a gift without insulting, offending, or ignoring their interests? Well, there’s always gift vouchers.

Early Birds Read Less Big Words

The Winnipeg Press recently published the headline that I longed to see throughout my teenage years. “Smart People Sleep Late.” Research released by the London School of Economics and Political Science suggests that people with higher IQ’s tend to be night-owls and those with lower IQ’s favour early mornings and other deviant behaviour.

So, the early birds do indeed get the worms and late-risers are smart enough to grab a coffee and the newspaper. This is what I have been saying for years, biased admittedly by my own tendency to arise Kraken-cranky and bleary-eyed about noon and faff about all day, before deciding that 10.00pm is an excellent time to start any work. It’s not that I am lazy, I’m just manifesting my superior intelligence. Honest.

I would have loved to see this article when I was in my teens. My parents had a habit of pointing out headlines to me, such as “Severe Studiousness Linked to Popularity with Boys” and “Not Listening To Your Mother Gives You Spots.”

But by far the most frequent of their complaints was my habit of sleeping in. My father would belt on my bedroom door at the highly unfashionable time of noon or so and shout all sorts of things about the day being half over as I tried to sleep through the banging.

This may not, to be fair, have been due to my stratospherically high IQ, but to my habit of reading long after the point at which the lights should have gone out. I even had the bedside lamp arranged so the switch could be inserted in my book as a page marker.

I keep reading all these articles that say bed should be a sacred place where you do nothing but sleep. But as far as I am concerned one of the best bits of the day is when you get to settle in snug under the duvet and pick up a book, safe in the knowledge that there is nothing left to distract you from reading.

Reading books in bed is one of life’s great joys and is one of the few pleasures that isn’t either illegal, immoral or fattening. And apparently being a “just one more page” person means you are an evolutionary trailblazer. Preferring to go to bed late (or, as the researchers put it, demonstrating “eveningness”; a word clearly thought up by someone who likes to get up at 4am) is an “evolutionarily novel preference” demonstrating “a higher level of cognitive complexity”.

And it’s not just smart, it’s ergonomic. Falling asleep in a book is surprisingly comfy even if it does lead to you waking up the next day with streams of random texts printed on your skin. (Nothing like the feeling where you realise that hot guy isn’t checking you out, he’s reading scraps of Mark Dapin off your forehead, and you have to pray it’s not the bits with lots of swearing.) An inability to put down that page-turner can make you a bit sluggish the next day, it’s true, but now you can brandish this article at your boss and tell them that your sleepy worst is clearly better than their early-morning best.

Let me know how this goes if you try it.

It’s not all good news for late-night readers. In fact, it might not be “news” at all. Dodgy surveys and cherry-picking lines from science studies for popular news tends to lead to all sorts of hilarity. “Blogs More Popular Than Booty, Study Finds” is my favourite send-up of what is a common practise on a slow news day. “This <sex versus internet> survey was conducted online. And, let’s face it — the kind of people sitting around and opting to fill out online surveys about how much they value sex probably aren’t getting much to begin with.”

And some studies – gasp – have even opined that us evolutionarily-forward night owls “less reliable, less emotionally stable and more apt to suffer from depression, addictions and eating disorders”. Well, I will admit sometime I bring a snack to eat while I read, and the cookie crumbs in the sheets can lead to a cranky night’s sleep.

But those studies, and their accompanying articles, aren’t the ones I will be sending my parents. Who, amusingly enough, since their retirement have started sleeping in later and reading more. So there’s hope for all the morning people out there. As well as probably about a thousand studies proving me wrong.

Books don’t sell or won’t sell? Advertising in reading.

Don’t judge a book by its cover? Perhaps not, but feel free to sell to an audience based on their taste in shows. A.V.Club recently reported a new study on TV watching and personality that found that, amongst other things, people who like The Office are smug, Mad Men appeals mainly to social liberals and creative types, and people who watch Glee are overly sensitive.

The A.V.Club reported on a “psychographic ad targeter” survey that divided various popular television shows into the sort of people they attract in order to see what advertisers would best be served by sticking their pitch in the ad break. (In marketing, psychographic variables are attributes relating to a person’s personality, values, attitudes, interests, or lifestyle choices.)

If you like this, you might also want a bottle of Evian, apparently.The survey found that, for example, people who like Family Guy are rebels and rule-breakers and unlikely to buy healthy yoghurt (perhaps Peter Griffin’s fans look more like him than they realise) and those watching Dancing With The Stars are more likely to embrace familiar brands than a brand new iPad. Glee watchers are sensitive and open to experience (and avid consumers of Evian, for some reason) and Office watchers believe they are extraordinary and different but actually more likely to shop at Starbucks and hanker for a BMW.

I’d highly recommend a read of the whole hilarious article (although the comments inspire equal amounts of terror and a belief that people should have to pass a grammar test before being allowed on a keyboard) but what it mainly got me thinking about is how great it is that most book readers are not under the same pressure and judgement from marketeers.

As it is hard to directly sell though a book, we are able to enjoy our favoured texts without advertising sticking its nose in every fifteen minutes. We can still pick up our copies of the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy without someone trying to sell us Jack Daniel’s (perfect for that Pan Galactic Gargle Blaster!) or enjoy Tim Flannery’s latest without having advertisements for the Prius waved under our nose every three seconds.

And it’s not that text doesn’t sell. Magazines give us an excellent look at what can happen when advertising gets hold of reading material; on a good month, you’ll have to go thirty pages into a copy of Cosmopolitan before hitting a single story.

But books remain reasonably untouched as thankfully they have not yet worked out a method of showing ad breaks in between chapters or, and perhaps more importantly, if it would be profitable to do so. In fact, occasionally advertising a product in a book has the opposite effect. Bridget Jones’s fondness for a glass of chardy lead to a recent slump in sales of the wine recently, according to one of Britain’s best-selling wine writers, Oz Clarke.

“Chardonnay has made some of the world’s greatest wines. Everyone appreciated it – until Bridget Jones. Bridget Jones goes out on the pull, fails, goes back to her miserable bedsit, sits down, pours herself an enormous glass of chardonnay, sits there with mascara running down her cheeks saying, ‘Dear diary, I’ve failed again, I’ve poured an enormous glass of chardonnay and I’m going to put my head in the oven.’ Great marketing aid!”

While I am pretty sure that Bridget’s love of a glass of Chardy may have inspired more that a few women to try a tipple, I can only applaud the sentiment. If only to keep direct advertising out of my books, and in the ad breaks on TV where it belongs.

Why, Ms Neuroscience, you’re beautiful.

What’s sexy in reading now, and what makes it sexy?

While there are always plenty of non-fiction books being released, the really popular ones tend to come in waves where it can feel the whole world is talking about their subject. One year you might be surrounded by excellent accounts of astronomy and the universe, the next it might be branding and mass-marketing that attracts your eye to the book shelf. What is it that makes a formerly serious field of study suddenly become the subject du jour? When does learning suddenly become sexy?

Well, I’d argue that learning and real-life reading is always sexy but – rather like the clichéd librarian character so loved in 80’s movies – real life reads need to take off their ill-fitting specs and let their hair down before the reading public will gasp out, “Why, Ms Non-fiction, you’re beautiful.” It has far less to do with the subject, and far more with the way that subject is presented.

A few years ago, that subject was economics – or to be more precise, Freakonomics. The book that started off a craze of interest in a formerly un-sexy area was Freakonomics: A Rogue Economist Explores the Hidden Side of Everything. Written in 2005, it melded pop-culture references with economics to give what had traditionally been the driest of subjects an interesting twist.  Its case studies were fascinatingly diverse and engaging; suggesting such controversial theories such as legalising abortion helps reduce crime and shedding light on why Sumo wrestlers were all a big pack of (unconscious) cheats.

But in addition to the interesting subjects (why should suicide bombers buy life insurance, for example?) the books had another huge advantage despite being on a subject not known for its high-sales and sex appeal – they were co-authored by an economist and a journalist. The marriage of excellent writing with technical expertise created a very sucessful book. They followed it up with Superfreakonomics, and were aped by countless other authors as publishers tried to cash in on economics suddenly being hot.

But what the Freakonomics books accomplished was not writing about a boring subject, but writing about an interesting subject in an interesting way. This might seem like a bit of a no-brainer, but it is amazing how many non-fiction books underestimate the need for good and entertaining writing. I have sat through books that made evolution boring or the workings of the human mind seem less interesting than watching paint dry. But when an interesting subject combines itself with some excellent writing, well, that’s when you’ll find the reading public are more than interested in the way the world works.

Take the recent trend of reading about neuroplasticity and neuroscience –  with Norman Doidge’s excellent The Brain That Changes Itself riding high in the best-sellers’ lists. It combines what are seen as stuffier science and studies with a highly engaging style of writing, and the reading public have embraced it. Hot on its heels now that the brain is suddenly sexy is a plethora of well-written books for non-experts. Right now I am demolishing both Mindsight (neuroplasticity and empathy) and re-reading Delusions of Gender (gender and neuroscience, far too witty to read just once) and there’s plenty more excellent reading where these came from. This year will be the year of the brain, of reading with awe about its structure and the technical details of how it works and why it makes us who we are.

And all this despite the fact that we are being told that the reading public do not want information, they want entertainment and sparkling vampires. Stephen Hawking, for example, was told that for every equation he included in his text, A Brief History of Time, his book-sales would half and he proved that wrong. I’ve argued about this before – I believe that the reading public is smart and discerning and wants to understand the world they live in, and that the main impediment to non-fiction is not the density of the subject matter but the quality of the writing. I believe that when more subjects abandon academic prose (outside of academia) and attempt to engage their audience, that the thirst for knowledge will both surprise and delight the experts who currently believe that their subject can not be made sexy.

And right now, I believe that I’ll enjoy my books on neuroscience, and look forward to more non-fiction subjects receiving a prose make-over and letting out their attractive side.

Seeing Red Over Stereotypes? Vent, and win a copy of Delusions of Gender.

“Woman has her range of duties, and her special functions, as man has his; and I would like to see each find his own place in his own level.”
Sir Edward Braddon (Tasmania, Free Trade) House of Representatives, 23 April 1902.

It well known that men don’t listen. Women, of course, can’t read maps. Women have smaller (possibly fluffy, certainly pink) brains that are great at empathising but bad at hard things, like maths and concentrating. Men can do complicated thinking but can’t do emotions because their brains consist of steel wool surrounding a solid block of logic. We can’t help it. It’s just the way our brains have been wired.

Seriously?

A lot of books would have you believe that there is an inevitable gap between the genders, vast and unbridgeable – well, unless you read the book, of course. Books, magazines and even scientific articles often cite immutable biological differences between the male and female brain as the reason.  Men are doomed to be shuffling Neanderthals, incapable of understanding communication more subtle than a club to the head, women are irrational shrews who must trick and cajole men into commitment before they accidently burn the cave down.

For those of you who find yourselves bristling at the blanket generalisations about both genders epitomised by books such as Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus (or, as a friend of mine calls it, Men Are From Mars, Women Suck My… well, you can fill in rest yourself) here’s a tonic for what ails you.

Dr Cordelia Fine is an academic psychologist, writer and researcher at Melbourne University, and her new book Delusions of Gender is a rebuttal to all the latest pseudo-scientific claims we hear on a daily basis about the differences between the sexes being based in the brain. Challenging “neurosexism” – as it has come to be known – she argues that by thinking of the genders as intractabily different, serious and unjustified obstacles are being placed in the paths of children’s devopment. Critiquing the bad science and methodology of many claims and drawing on the latest research in developmental psychology, neuroscience, and social psychology, she puts forward a very convincing case for the mind’s malleability, and for society to be mindful of this plasticity.

It may sound like she’s swimming against the tide of opinion, but that’s exactly what she wants to do. She was inspired to write the book by the amount of “bad science” already out there, as she explained in an interview with Salon.

It began when I read a parenting book that claimed that hard-wired sex differences meant that girls and boys should be parented and taught differently. When I looked at the actual studies being used as evidence, I was really shocked by how badly the neuroscientific findings were being misrepresented. I saw the same thing going on in other popular books about gender, and when I looked, I was surprised to discover how little convincing evidence there was that, for example, the male brain is hard-wired to be good at understanding the world and the female brain is hard-wired to understand people.

We have two copies of Delusions of Gender by Cordelia Fine to giveaway. To win, we want you to tell us what people say about your gender that really gets your goat. Entries close at 5pm on Monday 1 November, so feel free to call up your most sexist “everybody knows” acquaintance or co-worker and get them to hold forth at length, safe in the knowledge that this time, when you brain explodes in fury, you could be winning a book out of it.

Required Reading – the Most Popular Aussie Novel Survey

Ever expressed an off-the-cuff opinion and realised, with a sinking heart, you were talking to an expert? Ever wish you’d boned up more – or at all – before an exam? Ever turned up confident to a job interview and sat there squirming as you realised they expected far more, and you were woefully unprepared and probably under-qualified?

Have you ever cringed, really cringed, at how ill-informed you have just been revealed to be? Well, now you know how I feel after completing the Boomerang Books Most Popular Aussie Novel Survey.

Ow. I really hadn’t realised that I had missed out on that many novels.

Boomerang Books have launched their Most Popular Aussie Novel Survey to narrow down 120 of Australian authors’ best known titles, with the aim of finding out which novels are the most popular with readers. Their criteria for working out the popularity is pretty simple – the survey just asks did you actually finish the book.

After all, many books are bought or gifted, not all are read. I myself have a simply stunning set of Hilary Mantel bookends, as well as a disturbing large pile of novels in my “need-to-finish” pile – which is right next to my “donate to charity” pile. Not all the books get finished. Some do not pass Go, go directly to the local Op Shop.

So, you would think with giving up on books I would have plenty of time to get through the most acclaimed Australian novels, but apparently not. I won’t divulge my shameful strike rate, but I will tell you that  if this had been a percentage based exam, I would have failed it. In some cases, I had never even heard of the author. In others – lots of others – I had, but had read some other title they had written. Surely that must be worth half points?

I can come up with plenty of excuses. I grew up in Ireland so I would neither have studied many of the novels or have heard as much of the hype when they were released. I am also more of a non-fiction fan and when I dip my toe into novels I tend to read for fun, but the amount of books unread on that survey horrified me.  Still, it has also galvanised me – now that I have a handy list of them, I can make a start on getting through them. The big question is, of course, which ones should I go for first?

If you fancy taking your own shot at deciding Australia’s most popular novels, and possibly winning more books than you can read over the festive season, you can find the survey here. The grand prize for entry is a $500 book voucher, more than enough to keep you puzzling over what books you should buy until New Years, not to mention pondering the ethical dilemma that – given that Christmas is the season of giving and all –do you spend all of the money on yourself or just spend MOST of it on yourself. There’s still plenty of time – the survey closes on 30 November, and the site will be counting down the Top 24 from the first of December right through until Christmas Eve.

http://www.surveymonkey.com/boomerang-books

Words left unspoken, books unread

Have you ever regretted words unsaid? I have.

It’s a bit of a cliche, but I met him on a train. One of the good things about commuting to work (and believe me, there aren’t many) was the company of my fellow readers. Whether they were flicking through the twin of the book in my handbag or perusing tomes that I wouldn’t have picked up without protective gloves and a blindfold, it was always nice to spot another booklover.

Sometimes I’d see them and their book just the once but, as any commuter can tell you, most of us are creatures of habit. Same train or bus, same time each day, same carriage or even seat. You got to recognise your fellow travellers and their reading habits. Sometimes I even considered breaking the Sacred Silence of the Morning Commute (people who chat on phones before 8am on public transport, yes, everyone hates you) to recommend another similar book or ask what they thought of what they were reading.

Most days my train carriage had the Lady of Romance who read a new pink bodice-ripper weekly, Sci-Fi Guy who shared my liking for Peter F. Hamilton and Sucky-Stabby Woman who read grisly murder books while demolishing a bag of hard-boiled lollies.

And of course, there was Cute Book Guy.

It was the book that had got my attention as it was the same book that I was currently reading – Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers. I noticed the book and then the young man reading it and then – and only then, I swear – the fact that he was cute. I’d been enjoying it and I wondered what he thought. I must have wondered a bit too hard – he looked up and then looked worried at the intensity of my gaze.

Blushing, I flashed the cover of my own book – the twin of his – apologetically at him in explanation. He smiled, relieved, and put his head back down. Then he looked up again, and at the book, and spread his hands in a “what do you think” motion? I gave him a thumbs-up. He nodded and grinned, and we both got back to our books.

Trapped together in the non-speaking zone of a train trip five days a week, we flashed covers and spines and occasional smiles when we saw each other. But we never spoke. I showed him my penchant for travelogues, he showed me his for adventure tales. I liked non-fiction and stories of scientific pioneers, he had an impressive line in historical biographies. We admired each others’ Classic Penguins; Hunter S. Thompson’s Kingdom of Fear for me, Jack Kerourac’s On The Road for him.

It wasn’t all good times. One day I caught Cute Book Guy with a book of cricket jokes, and another time he caught me reading Who Moved My Cheese. I wanted to tell him that my office had insisted we all read it, but that would have involved breaking the sacred silence of the early morning commute. And I just wasn’t brave enough to do that.

And now I don’t commute anymore, and I can’t help feeling I wasted an opportunity. I occasionally wonder what he, and my other fellow readers, are up to these days. And, I have to admit, I regret the fact that I didn’t break the morning silence to speak to him. There was so much I wanted to say to him, although one simple sentence would have got my point across.

So, Cute Book Guy, if you are out there and reading, here’s something I have always wanted to say to you but couldn’t.

Ahem.

Read Stumbling on Happiness. Malcolm Gladwell recommends it and it really is very entertaining. I think you’d really like it.

Oh. And also, sorry about Who Moved My Cheese – my old job made me.

…it’s amazing how good it feels to finally say that.

Weddings and wonderings and oh my poor head

It’s all about testing the boundaries of sanity chez moi this week. I am taking time out from my copies of Crazy Like Us (non-fiction; on globalisation issues and mental health) and Stephen King’s Under The Dome (fiction; bad stuff happens and people go crazy). I’m researching another topic commonly associated with breakdowns in mental health – weddings.

No, this isn’t for the sheer fun of it. Yes, I am actually having one. I have not gone completely insane. I haven’t put the wedding carriage before the plumed white horses with fetching sparkly corsages and just started organising one in the assumption that the groom will turn up on the day.

(Incidentally, is this why all the weddings photos in magazines etc show lone brides standing alone, looking wistful and posing in the light, assumedly in the hope of luring a groom? Is the correct procedure for females looking to meet a life mate to shove on a fluffy white meringue and pose somewhere dramatically, like an albino Bird of Paradise doing a mating dance?)

Someone has asked me to marry them and I would like to, so I said yes. I am not doing a Miss Havisham and planning on stalking through my gothic mansion in a torn wedding dress for all eternity, not least because my apartment in Sydney has an abundance of light and stainless steel decor and Gothicising it would require a good deal more effort than just getting out there and finding another groom.  Although possibly less effort than organising a wedding.

I have a bit of a dearth of wedding books on my shelves. I have tried looking for some online but can’t really tell the difference between the various titles. They’ve all gone for that trick of naming themselves something definitive and simple. Which is all very clever and meta-marketing and all that until you realise that you’ve ended up with 9 books called “Wedding”, 7 books called “Weddings” and another 25 or so called “Your Wedding” or “My First Wedding” or something equally non-helpful in describing the information actually in the book in question. Seriously, go count them. I’ll wait.

I appreciate the concept, but frankly it’s a bit like coming across a whole bunch of fiction books called “Story” or a group of politicians all named Lying Narcissist Weasel.

Most of the wedding books I have found seem to veer between the lines of Fluffyknickers The Flower Belle’s Holistic Hippy Wedding Hints or Mrs. Deirdre’s Guide to Wedding for Charming Young Ladies of Taste, Refinement and Chastity, the second of which I am vaguely worried will explode into flames should I put my hands on it.

Ideally I am looking for a title something along the lines of “How to Organise a Nice Day for You and Both Families Without Going Insane, Bankrupt or Both.” Something with helpful reminders like “Your Mum would appreciate an invite” instead of stern obscure prohibitions something along the lines of “Three shall be the bridesmaids thou shalt count, and the number of the bridesmaids shall be three. Four shalt thou not have, neither have thou two…”

Can anyone recommend a tome to read that won’t suggest either hand-woven organic goat beard headpieces for the bridesmaids (“Just add a sprinkle of grass picked on a rain May 1st for the Goddess’s blessings!”) or covering the piano legs with little skirts so it doesn’t over-excite the Gentlemen?

Perfectionism can get pulped – Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom

Ever sent an important document and moments later gone “d’oh!”when you spotted the glaring error you missed pre-send? Then spare a sympathetic thought for notorious perfectionist Jonathan Franzen and his publisher. They’re undergoinging both an author’s and editor’s worst nightmare. The book gets written, revised, proofed and printed – and then pulped. Because it turns out someone sent the wrong file to the printer.

The book in question is Jonathan Franzen’s new novel Freedom, the publisher is Fourth Estate in the UK and, instead of the final edit being sent to the printer, an earlier draft was sent. The printer diligently worked away, churning out 80,000 copies or so, only for the error to be discovered a few days later.

HarperCollins Australia, who will be handling the book over here, released a statement that made the whole thing sound like a mere trifle:

‘As has been reported in media stories over the past 24 hours, it has been discovered that some final, minor corrections failed to make it into the first printed version of Jonathan Franzen’s long-awaited new novel Freedom, published in the UK, Australia and New Zealand this month. It was a typesetter’s error and the mistakes involve the occasional word, spelling and punctuation. The fundamentals of this remarkable novel were not affected, with the plot and ending remaining as the author intended.”

But, at 80,000 copies with nearly 600 pages a-piece, changing these minor corrections will be an expensive and lengthy business. HarperCollins is offering a free exchange for anyone who has already bought a copy.

“It was just a mistake that happened,” said Siobhan Kenny, director of communications for HarperCollins UK. “But obviously Franzen spent 10 years writing this book and he wants everything to be read exactly as he wrote it. He is most concerned about his real fans and he wants to give them the book as he wants it.”

But not all the readers are interested in seeing the corrected version. Sales of the book jumped straight after Franzen spoke about the error at a public reading so it doesn’t look like all of the readers will be eager to hand it back. Perhaps they are hoping the flawed versions will one day become collector’s items like the Wicked Bible which, thanks to a printer’s error, reads “thou shalt commit adultery” and retails for a hundred thousand dollars or so. Maybe they are just fascinated by the idea of seeing the unpolished work before it was corrected for whatever reason it seems that plenty of people are delighted by the idea of seeing the unfinished work.

And there-in lies the rub. Franzen is a notorious perfectionist and Freedom was nine years in the making. Now he has to live with the idea that his errors are out there in the world. Can you imagine the horror? Think of the time that you sent that email to your boss’s boss saying you wished to “apologise for any incontinence caused” and multiply that 80,000 times.

Although, as someone who frequently makes mistakes and actually did send that email (four days into my new job, no less), I am somewhat cheered by the fact that Franzen, perfectionistic as he is, makes errors. If even he makes the occasional typo, perhaps there is hope for us yet.

Bully Boys and Haughty Heroes – do we really only like horrible men?

When Neil Strauss recommended that men act dismissive and demolish women’s confidence to get them into bed, he was denigrated for being a sexist jerk who thought badly of women. But when chick-lit writers have the male love interest do the same thing, we are expected to root for the romance. Are we really that enamoured of horrible men?

Flicking through the chick-lit Love, Honour and Betray, I came across a familiar type of love interest – the taciturn male who communicates primarily through sarcasm and cutting remarks. He is by turns dismissive and rude, insulting the main character’s intelligence and shredding her attempts to start a normal conversation. If a kid at school behaved like this, we’d call it bullying. If your boss behaved like this towards you, we’d tell you to get a new job. So why are we expected to hold out for the occasional droplet of affection and hope it becomes a full blown romance?

Because the hard-to-get bloke who finally realises your worth is a tried and true character for romance novels. And it’s not a new development. Cast your mind back 200 hundred years or so; Jane Austen writing about the haughty Mr Darcy refusing to dance with Elizabeth in Pride and Prejudice, Charlotte Brontë crafting the moody Edward Rochester for Jane Eyre. In the last hundred years Mills & Boon have done a roaring trade on arrogant Princes who fall for the serving girl and angry angsty widowers who finally succumb to the gentle charms of the new nanny. The subtext seems to be that the good opinion of a nice bloke is worth very little, but working your but off for a kind word from the grumpiest man in the village is what should hit your romantic hot spots.

And, despite all the roars of Girl Power and women writers setting the tone, we can’t write it off as a literary convention that’s long gone. More recently we’ve had Mr Darcy’s namesake in the Bridget Jones’s series sulking about and Edward Cullen brooding his way through Twilight. Edward’s is initially dismissive to the point of hostility with Bella – he later explains he acted like a jerk as he was so attracted to her. Um, what? (The hilarious Editing Room sums up their first encounters, as portrayed in the movie adaption, as “KRISTEN sits next to ROBERT, who nearly vomits in his mouth and leaves school for a week.” Not what you normally imagine love at first sight to be.)

We’re used to the idea that, in novels, is okay for the romantic male to be a bit mean. But when Neil Strauss’s book The Game suggested “negging” women to pick them up, a lot of the reviews slammed him for just that. “Negging” involves making a mildly insulting or back-handed compliment during an initial conversation a woman you are trying to pull to lower her self-esteem and make her try harder to please you. It’s a cornerstone of the PUA philosophy (that’s Pick-Up-Artists, for those of you who haven’t answered the ads promising to show you ways you can pick-up stunningly beautiful women even you look more like John Howard than Johnny Depp) and supposedly, by making a woman believe you aren’t interested in her, makes her interested in you.

Sounds crazy, doesn’t it. After all, who would find someone attractive because they were been obviously dismissive of them? But according to Strauss, it works. And, having read a lot of chick lit, it does sound familiar. I know, I know, a lot of this is necessitated by the needs of the romantic plot in the book. Without some conflict, there can be no relief at the resolution. If the perfect man happens to be reasonable, well-balanced and dealing well with the growing relationship by page 50 or so, there’s not much suspense available to the writer. But does that mean that we are setting up every romance as a tale of Bad Boy Won Over as opposed to Girl Meets Nice Bloke? Is this really what we want? Can we really get angry with a non-fiction book describing negging and dissmissive behaviour when so many fiction books use it as most of the romance plot?

Look, Love, Honour and Betray isn’t a bad book. The story of a woman picking up her life after being left by her husband, it’s a fun read, with plenty of quips and (overall) a positive message. Likewise, The Game is a funny and entertaining read, intended to be more of a cautionary tale on the PUA ethos and lifestyle than an instruction manual. I’m not saying these texts are singlehandly ruining romance for me. But for their bad examples of blokes, I’d like some good ones.

And I can’t think of them. I’m struggling badly here to think of a romance novel that has a nice bloke as a viable love interest. I’m a big fan of decent, sweet, funny men and surely there must be some out there in fiction. I’m sure there are. Help me out here – can anyone think of novels where the good guy wins the day?

Or are we really that addicted to horrible, hideous men?

Da Vinci Confession

Confession time. I don’t hate Dan Brown. In fact, I enjoyed The Da Vinci Code.

As subtle as a 14-karat gold bishop's ring with purple amethyst, large diamonds, and hand-tooled mitre-crozier appliqué.I know, I know, in literary terms this is up there with saying that you preferred the movie of the Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy to the book or you favour tomes with chewable covers and pop-up illustrations on every page, but I’ve had enough of lying. I read The Da Vinci code, I quite enjoyed it, and then I put it down and that was the end of it.

Or so I thought. Now I find myself justifying my moment of fluff reading to everyone who asks. “Yes, I read the Da Vinci code. I know, I know, it’s bad. He writes with the subtley of an illiterate rhino on crack, I get it.” After a few minutes of being haraunged for my poor taste I find myself bleating the following apology and attempt to justify myself. “Yes, I read it. But I didn’t buy the series.”

I feel like Bill Clinton, with his famous admission that he tried marijuana but didn’t inhale. (And seriously, I understand that he was trying so hard to sit on the fence that he was getting wedgied by the posts but who wants someone in charge of their country when they say they can’t even work out how to smoke correctly? Next thing he’ll be all confused about the facts of life… oh, wait a minute.)

Everyone has had a go at Dan Brown. He tops the Oxfam Least Wanted list for books donated to the charity stores. Jodi Picoult thinks his books are “poorly written“, Salman Rushdie thinks The Da Vinci Code is a “novel so bad that it gives bad novels a bad name“, and Lifehacker pithily titles one of its articles Improve Your Writing with Dan Brown’s Mistakes.

The UK Telegraph devoted a whole article to identifying the worst moments of Dan Brown’s writing, including such gaudy but apparently subtle gems as “Only those with a keen eye would notice his 14-karat gold bishop’s ring with purple amethyst, large diamonds, and hand-tooled mitre-crozier appliqué”. There’s also a quote in there from Edinburgh professor of linguistics Geoffrey Pullum who declares that “Brown’s writing is not just bad; it is staggeringly, clumsily, thoughtlessly, almost ingeniously bad.

I’m not arguing that one. But I think they miss the point on what Dan Brown is. He is the literary equivalent of the old Batman TV shows; terrible dialogue, ludicrous plots, evil organisations and camp villains and constant cliffhangers get resolved in the most ludicrous of twists. You don’t read Dan Brown for the writing. In fact, you barely read Dan Brown at all. You skim lightly from crisis to crisis and plot twist to plot twist, thoroughly entertained by the silliness of it all. The only thing missing is a pop-up at the end of each chapter – POW! BANG! BIFF! Right in the eye with that subtle diamond and gold applique ring.

The Da Vinci Code isn’t a book for lovers of fine prose and editing, it’s a block-buster designed to distract the brain. Dan Brown has thrown subtlety and good writing out the window and written the literary equivalent of a dodgy action movie. Is it good writing? Hell no. Is it a good book? Well, that’s another issue. It is if that’s what you want to read right now. Sometimes there is a place for terse and tightly written prose. Sometimes you just want to see renegade monks beat up people.

So I’ll admit it. I read The Da Vinci Code.  And I enjoyed it.

Dating by the Book – looking for love through literature

When it comes to romance, I think we are using books the wrong way. There are countless books about dating. They range from positive to negative to the extremely off-putting, including titles such as Dating Fitness, which combines dating with gym imagery (have YOU flexed your dating muscles recently?), and thus makes the whole thing sound a million times worse than it is. There are books on how to date and who to date and where to find dates, but why not just bring books along when we go dating?

Probably not one to impress the Pope with, either.A speed-read-dating function – where all the participants bring a few favoured books to show the others – sounds a lot more appealing to me than a three-minute meet and greet. By having special Book Daters events, we could just solve that hideous moment when you have spent two minutes rhapsodising about what you are currently reading and they say, “I don’t like books, actually.” You could get straight into the real question of the date – do you both like similar books?

It would solve non-compatibility issues right off the bat. If they are flashing a well-thumbed copy of the The God Delusion and you are clutching your battered and much loved copy of the Bible, well, that’s probably not a match made in heaven – whether you believe heaven exists or not. Likewise, Mills & Boons romance readers of the Barbara Cartland school (kissing is fine, but no further) might want to give people toting a copy of I Hope They Serve Beer in Hell a wide berth.

The great thing about books is that they can be a little window into the reader’s brain. I have heard various horror stories from speed-dating, and a lot of those tale involve lies of the most basic nature – the guy who claimed to work at an animal shelter and turned out to work in the stock exchange (which I reckon would have probably been a deal-breaker either way round you decided to lie), another one who said he was just “a normal regular Joe” who brought his mother with him on the date, a girl who claimed to be a “sucessfull[sic] business woman” on a dating site and then tried to borrow cash for transport to the date in question.

A quick peak at their top three books would solve that one neatly. People read about the life that they would like to lead. If they’re holding travelogues and your idea of annual leave bliss is two weeks at home, this may not work out. If he’s toting Tolkien and an armload of fantasy books, you can’t complain when he turns out to be esoteric and fascinating but occasionally a touch odd. Likewise, if their favoured reading is sports books and sports bios and sports jokes, you can’t scream that you had no warning about this sport fixation when you have to spend the third Sunday in a row watching the games with them or worse, actually running around a pitch.

This man knows romance is a shirt half off.If your idea of true love is bringing home petrol station forecourt flowers on Valentine’s Day and they’re into urban and paranormal romance, you can bet that you’ll need to up your game in the romance stakes. A lot. And possibly wear sparkly body lotion in the sack.

Book can be a direct look at the relationships they idolise and what they will expect from you – Bella and Edward, Mr Darcy and Elizabeth Bennet, Sam and Frodo. Need to know what they want from you? Check out their bookshelf. Or better yet, get them to come to the date with their best books.

I mean, nine times out of ten if it all goes well you’ll just end up wittering on about books anyway so why not just make it official?

Terry Pratchett’s sword is mightier than his pen

The pen may be mightier of the two but, after years forging a career as Britain’s best-selling fantasy author with over 65 million books sold to his name, Terry Pratchett decided it was time to forge a sword instead of writing about them.

Appointed Officer of the Order of the British Empire (OBE) “for services to literature” in 1998 and knighted in the 2009 New Year Honours, he briefly lamented the fact that knighthood no longer came with a horse and blade before deciding to make his own. And not just any sword, but as fitting a fantasy writer, he decided to make an epic sword made from fallen meteorites – a Swordof Fallen Stars, if you want to get all fantastical about it.

Make it, mind, not just buy it in a shop. Popular convention has it that writers are weedy creatures, unsuited to exertion, the outdoors and – in extreme cases – sunlight and fresh air, but Pratchett, found and gathered and smelted the iron ore himself.  For that epic sword of fantasy flavour it included “several pieces of meteorites — thunderbolt iron, you see — highly magical, you’ve got to chuck that stuff in whether you believe in it or not”.

In addition to the pieces of meteorite it took 81kgs of ore, a makeshift kiln made from clay and hay and powered by sheep manure, and the help of a friend who was an expert on metal-making, but Terry Pratchett succeeded in making his own sword. “Most of my life I’ve been producing stuff which is intangible and so it’s amazing the achievement you feel when you have made something which is really real.”

Pratchett is a profilic writerm and a favourite author of mine, with his Discworld series taking up some serious bookshelf real estate in my apartment (Small Gods is my favourite). His collaboration with Neil Gaiman, Good Omens, being one of the books I am most likely to force into people’s hands, roaring “you must read this, it is fantastic”. He’s been in the news recently for his battle with early-onset Alzheimer’s disease, filming a programme chronicling his experiences with the disease for the BBC and his controversial and publicised support of assisted suicide, and it’s good to see that he hasn’t – if you will forgive the pun – lost his edge.

He has always gone his own way, and long been known for his habit of wearing a black fedora anywhere he can get away with it. Looking more like a snow-bearded cowboy than an elderly writer, it’s unlikely he’ll be adding the sword to his threads when he’s out in public. It’s a showpiece only, as he can’t carry it proudly on his side – sheathed or otherwise – thanks to UK law. “It annoys me that knights aren’t allowed to carry their swords. That would be knife crime.”

Despite weilding a satiric pen for years, Terry isn’t contesting this. He has no doubt which of the two make a better weapon. He wrote said, “The pen is mightier than the sword if the sword is very short, and the pen is very sharp.”

As for me, I’m having fun imagining a world where authors become professionals at crafting the tools of their genre. In addition to fantasy writers slaving over the anvils, we could have science-fiction writers building spacecraft and time-machines in the shed, and romance novelists setting up dating agencies. Twilight author Stephenie Meyers doing a sideline in making bedtime coffin and scented stakes.

Someone will have to tell crime-writer Patricia Cornwall that she’s not invited to this party.

Sentenced to Read – how your books give you away

The way to a man’s heart may be through his stomach, but the way to understand a person’s heart comes straight off their bookshelf, according to the law in Michigan.

The judgement on 15-year-old, Justin Furnari, who killed a woman in a hit-and-run car accident, included an intriguing twist – a stipulation to read. In accordance with what you would expect, the judge sentenced him to four years in juvenile detention, the maximum penalty allowed under law, and ordered him to pay for her funeral expenses. But intriguingly the judge added a stipulation to the sentence – the teen was also ordered to read three books a month. This starts with “The Catcher in the Rye”, which was a favourite of 59-year-old Penny Przywara, the woman that he hit and killed.

It’s an interesting idea, although the news reports are sadly lacking in the why of the judge’s decision. Was it motivated by a belief that further education would broaden and improve the mind of the teen, or an attempt to make the culprit understand the mind of the woman he hit? Did it come out over the trial that the teen did not read and the judge believed he would benefit from it? Or something else entirely?

Still, the first step to empathy is to understand other people, and what better way to get to know someone than to read the books that appeal to them? The Catcher in the Rye is a much-lauded coming of age story written by JD Salinger, featuring a teenage protagonist wrestling with his identity, teenage rebellion and his sense of alienation from society. It’s a book frequently recommended to teenagers, echoing the wrestles with growing-up and confusion as it does. The fact that it remained a favourite of Ms Przywara until her late fifties suggests, had she ever met Justin, Penny would have understood the young man a great deal more than he would have expected.

That said, just because it’s a book about teenagers doesn’t mean they will all like it. The Catcher in the Rye was on my own required reading list at high school and I have to admit the fragmented and occasionally incoherant prose and the whiny indecisiveness of the protagonist, Holden Caulfield, left me not so much with an understanding of him but with more of an urge to smack him – and JD Salinger – in the face with a herring.  Repeatedly. I did, however, take a huge shine to Shakespeare, and particularly Macbeth, which most of my class declared boring. Perhaps it was all the hot men with Scottish accents or my wish to be a witch when I grew up.

There’s no doubt that people’s choice in reading tells you a great deal about them and – as my poor long suffering English teacher could have told you – the main thing you learn when you have to recommend a book to a large group of people is that for every person who “gets  it” and loves it, there will be two people loudly complaining that it’s rubbish. In recommending The Catcher in the Rye, the judge takes the risk that it will not just not appeal to, but actively alienate, the fifteen year old boy that will be reading them. Perhaps that’s why the judge stipulated not just one book but three a month.

Or perhaps I have the wrong end of the stick completely, and the judge just works part-time in the publishing industry. What do you think, and what book would you recommend people read to understand you?

A Dream Come True at 72 – Maris Morton on A Darker Music

Maris Morton has always loved to write but has never had a book published. At the age of 72 she will finally see her name in bookstores when her winning entry to the CAL Scribe Fiction Prize, A Darker Music, hits the shelves at the end of this month.

While there is no doubt Maris is delighted to see her work in print, Scribe believes that it’s not just the older writers that benefit from the prize; it’s good for readers too. There are many examples of late bloomers when it comes to writing.  Scribe’s Fiction Acquisitions Editor, Aviva Tuffield, says, ‘It seems that many novelists, especially women, only find the time and have acquired the life experience to write novels later in life.’ Maris agrees; A Darker Music was a long time in gestation and is her third attempt at a novel. ‘A lot of people knew I was trying to write a book, it’s been a twelve-year effort, so I’m not an overnight success, far from it!’

A Darker Music is a mystery novel set on a merino stud in rural Western Australia, and draws on Maris’s own experiences as a shearer’s cook. ”It is essentially a crime novel,” she says, ”but it’s not a conventional police procedural – they’ve been done to death. I am interested in the way characters interact, how the situation deteriorates and violence is done.”

I caught up with Maris to ask her a few questions about A Darker Music, writing and what advice she has for aspiring authors.

What was it about this story that made you want to tell it?

A long time ago I met a farmer’s wife who told me she used to be a violinist, until her instrument was accidentally smashed. This started me thinking about what it must be like to live in an isolated place, and lose something that is precious, with no hope of ever getting it back; and then, to make matters worse, to see the same thing shaping up to happen to another young woman. The plot took a long time to germinate, but when it did it grew into something quite powerful.

You’ve worked as an English teacher, shearers’ cook, shed hand, artist, art restorer and director of an art gallery. Do you think all these experiences took away time or added something to your writing?

Have had such a varied work history has given me a rich store of experiences, people and places to draw on for my stories. For example, in A Darker Music I was able to use my experience as a shearers’ cook.

Having always been an avid reader, I’d always thought that writing a book would be a fine thing, but somehow I never had enough confidence to get started. It’s only through my various jobs that I’ve accumulated the belief in myself, and my skills, to tackle the challenge. No experience, however painful it may seem at the time, is ever wasted.

How did your family react when they heard?

My family’s reaction was surprise! Although they knew that I was busily writing I don’t think any of them expected me to have any real success. Only one of them has even read my work, and even she hasn’t read A Darker Music.

A Darker Music is your first book. Will you be resting on your laurels or do you have more planned?

Although A Darker Music is the first of my books to be published, I have another four almost ready, plus another two started. Most of them feature the character Mary Lanyon, and have an element of crime or mystery; some of them include murder. I wrote the first draft of the first book (Portrait of the Artist as a Dead Man) in 1997.

Finally, what advice would you give aspiring writers?

For aspiring writers: Don’t give up! You’ll get many rejections but you must develop a thick hide, and learn to profit from criticism.

Gather as much experience as you can, keeping a journal if you don’t trust your memory.

Organise your research material so that you can find what you want when you want it.

Don’t ever let yourself think that near enough is good enough, it doesn’t matter if you get things wrong. Somebody will always spot mistakes, and your credibility will be gone.

And if you’re not in love with writing, and with your characters, forget it.

The CAL Scribe Fiction Prize is for an unpublished manuscript by an Australian writer aged 35 and over. The winner receives $15,000 and a book contract from Scribe. This year’s competition has closed, so if you are a budding writer who has lost the bloom of youth, you have lots of time to get cracking on your entry for next year.

Spring Cleaning and Book Breeding

Spring has sprung and I need to face facts. My bedside book collection has got completely out of control.

When I first landed in Sydney in 2006, I planned to go backpacking about Australia for two years. When you are upping sticks every eight weeks you have to stick to the Two Bag Rule mentioned by Australian author and traveller extraordinaire Cameron Rogers in his recent interview on this blog. Once you go over a rucksack and some hand-luggage, you have too much stuff. Sad to say, when you need to carry enough to survive the back-packing existence by night and working in an office by day, it doesn’t leave much space for heavy reading materials.

This meant that my book luggage was so minimalist as to be non-existent. I carried the copy of the Lonely Planet guide to Australia and New Zealand that still adorns my shelves today (it’s out of date, but has too much sentimental value to junk) as well as a copy of the Writers’ Yearbook and a dog-eared copy of Eat, Shoots and Leaves. One to encourage me to write, the other to correct my horrendous grammar. Three books, maybe a fourth if I was travelling and needed something to read en-route. Okay, sometimes five. But not more than that.

Honest.

That’s not to say I didn’t read; I picked up books in hostels, shops and second-hand stores, and then gifted or gave them away when it was time to move on. I made use of Australia’s wonderful library system; I have cards for Melbourne, Perth and Wagga Wagga and Brisbane’s New Farm branch still sends me imploring emails asking why I don’t visit anymore. But I learnt not to be too sentimental about my books; I read, I enjoyed, I shared. Love ’em and leave ’em with someone else, that was my motto.

Now my motto appears to be love ’em and use ’em to build a fort around the bed. A quick glance around my boudoir reveals several Terry Pratchett’s, a few Gladwell’s, a copy of Guns, Germs and Steel, the ubiquitous Bryson’s and more Chuck Palahniuk’s than you could shake a large and angry surrealist stick at as well as some magazines and newspapers. My bedside locker is teetering with titles, and while I was telling myself a spring clean could wait this morning I found another literary adventurer had slid off the dresser and into the laundry basket. If I were to retire to my bedroom to read them all, you’d be ordering me in pizza until sometime in the summer.

And that’s not all. I have Neal Stephensen’s Snow Crash in the bathroom, Daniel Gilbert’s Stumbling on Happiness in my handbag, at least another ten titles sprinkled around the house and five more titles on the way from Boomerang Books. And that’s not counting the groaning bookshelves.

I am unsure whether I require a spring clean or Hercules diverting some handy rivers through my apartment. Never mind a two bag rule, I’d be happy if I could just get my book collection into the one apartment that I have. Every time I try to start cleaning, I discover another interesting title lurking in the oddest place (in the sofa and by the cooker being the recent two) that demands I have flick through its pages. It’s hard to spring clean when the clutter is this fascinating.

It’s even harder when there is so much of it. I’m finding titles I forgot I bought to read – always an issue when your partner shares your taste in reading and occasionally swipes them from under your nose. There are so many odd books popping up I suspect they may be breeding somewhere. Perhaps that’s why they are all over the bedroom?

I hope not. If the darn things are planning on procreating all over my house and squatting here indefinitely, I’m going to need to ask them to pay rent. Or at least help me clean.

Burn Before Reading

This week’s top book story is not, unfortunately, a story of a great new novel or a literary award. Look up books in the news this week and what you’ll find is the planned burning of two hundred Qur’ans in Florida.

Church pastor Reverend Terry Jones says he and other church members plan to burn 200 Qur’ans – the central religious text of Islam, also known as the Quran, Koran, Qur’ān, Coran or al-Qur’ān – on Saturday, calling the event “International Burn a Qur’an Day”. They say the goal of burning Qur’ans is to send a message to al-Qaida, the violent Islamic group that carried out the terrorist attacks of 9/11.

While book-burning is often seen as censorship, this church apparently burns not with the aim of obliterating the information but to actively antagonise a tiny group of the people who identify with it, seemingly ignoring the fact that they are also at risk of antagonising the full fifth of the world’s population who revere the book as the word of God. It’s a useless gesture – as one tweeter quipped, “yeah, and I’m going to delete 200 pdfs too” – unless their agenda is to insult and aggravate.

Should they be able to burn these books, these words that some people find sacred? When is burning a book justifiable or wise?

The media coverage has ranged from factual to celebrity-obsessed to sensationalist fear-mongering. It’s often reported that US is floundering ineffectually and unable to stop it, using terms like “appears powerless”, but it’s not. It’s honouring its own sacred words. Administration officials say the Florida pastor and his followers are within their constitutional rights to burn a Qur’an, just as U.S. anti-war protesters have burned American flags at demonstrations in the past. The church has the right to burn, but the US administration hopes the church reconsiders its threatened action.

This is not to say the US condones the burning. They have pointed out that the gesture will sadden millions and possibly enrage a small few, leading to further attacks on tourists or troops by extremists. State Department Spokesman P.J. Crowley said the contemplated actions are abhorrent, inappropriate, and should not happen. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton branded the plan “disgraceful”. Sarah Palin has chosen actively denounce the action on her Facebook page, although I’m undecided whether she was actually calling for clemency or just taking the chance to get a quick dig in at infamous “Ground Zero Mosque”.

“People have a constitutional right to burn a Koran if they want to, but doing so is insensitive and an unnecessary provocation — much like building a mosque at Ground Zero… “

It may be called “International Burn a Qur’an Day” but it is getting precious little support anywhere, with everyone from the Vatican to UN decrying the actions. Will this, and the numerous requests from religious leaders, army generals and statemen, have any effect on the Floridian preacher? It’s doubtful.  But they are on the record, disagreeing.

This church has the constitutional right to burn Qur’ans. But should they?

“And the award for best zombie goes to…”

Back in July we interviewed Seanan McGuire, author of the Tody Daye series and “science fiction zombie political thriller” Feed, for this blog. When I was speaking to her, she had been nominated for a Hugo and was packing for AussieCon4 in Melbourne. The Hugo Awards have been running since 1953, and are awarded to the best in fiction, art, editing, film making and fan achievements in science fiction and fantasy. Seanan was pretty excited, both about visiting Australia for the first time and the fact that she was up for  best New Writer, but was nice enough to take the time out to talk to me about writing, zombies and the importance of getting your research right.

The John W. Campbell Award is given to the best new science fiction or fantasy writer whose first work was published in the last two years, and I am delighted to see that she won.  Having just finished reading Feed, which Seanan wrote as under the name of Mira Grant, I’ve been recommending it to everyone.

Feed is less about horror, guts and zombie gore, and more about the political, social and media landscape that forms twenty years after the zombie apocalypse when gatherings of more than 20 people are viewed as a deathtrap and windows no longer exist, but elections still need to happen.  It’s about a world where everyone carries the zombie virus, and friends and family could turn at any time and a future where some journalists (called, amusingly enough, Irwins) take insane risks to titillate the bunkered public with shots of zombie-baiting. It’s a suspenseful and speculative story whose characters will stay in your head long after they are dead.

Especially after they are dead.

Feed will be joining all the other titles telling me how to survive an undead invasion. There is the stern Zombie Survival Guide by Max Brooks, which contains useful tips on reinforcing your home (remember, windows are not your friends) and picking the right sort of melee weapon so you don’t end up clutching something too heavy to lift when the time comes. There’s the Ultimate Survival Guide, which is also useful for scenarios that don’t involve zombies. (Although, honestly, what are the odds of that?)

And, just to remind you that just because the world is ending there is no need to be uncouth, there is always Pride, Prejudice and Zombies.

There’s also Zombies for Zombies, a guide for the freshly infected, which I am hoping I won’t need but should it happen at least I will have guide to help me to transition through that awkward opening period where you want to eat everbody’s brains but you are just not sure HOW.

For those of you wondering about how reading books about zombies qualifies as real-world reading, well, I figure when the cries of “brains” start it will be too late to get to a bookstore. I’m getting my library together now. As any reputable zombie-survival guide will tell you, be prepared. And don’t stand near the window.

Sulking at Stig and Bieber’s baby bangs – when is it too soon for a bio?

Today I am wearing my cranky hat, and it’s all the Stig’s fault.

This week the news was full of the fact that the BBC had lost a ruling to keep his identity a secret. Racing driver Ben Collins, the man who plays the white-suited and helmeted driver on the Top Gear television show, will be able to release his book about his time as the Stig. HarperCollins plans to publish The Man in the White Suit in September and the secret of the man under the helmet is out. Some fans are unhappy, as the anonymity of the Stig added to the mystique of the show. The BBC are also not happy, refusing to officially confirm Ben as the Stig, but acknowledging he is the author of the book who claims to be the Stig.

I’m not happy too, but for a different reason.

I couldn’t care less who he is, what annoys me is that Ben Collins is 35 and everyone keeps referring to this book as his autobiography.

Is it just me, or is the word biography coming to mean “an account of stuff I did last week”? 35 seems a bit young to be pulling out the memoirs and summing up. When I think of the word biography, I associate it with a life that has actually been lived. I’m after wisdom and the benefit of hindsight, not recommendations on how to get through your twenties. I prefer images of someone writing their memoirs over a glass of aged port in their library, not scribbling them on a beer-mat in the VIP area of a club.

Yes, I’m cranky. Possibly because I don’t get into VIP areas. But I have back-up from the Collins Dictionary. It defines a biography as “an account of a someone’s life”, not “a description of what you got up to before breakfast”. Wikipedia, that user-created starter of arguments about bias in articles, states ”a biography presents the subject’s story […] a work is biographical if it covers all of a person’s life.”

You only live once. But you get to write about it incessantly.

See? That’s all of a person’s life, not their most recent Facebook status updates. And the Stig isn’t the only person due for pointed glare. Miley Cyrus released her auto-biography at the age of 16. (And what a read that must have been. “Got up late, sulked, told Dad his mullet and Achy Breaky Heart sucks and I wish I had never been born”.) UK Glamour model Katie Price took time out from having tasteless weddings and even more tasteless surgery to release three of the damned things between the ages of 26 and 30. How interesting can tanning your ever-expanding boobs be?

Tween idol and teenager Justin Bieber has apparently managed to scrawl something in crayon in between getting his hair styled and having the testosterone carefully removed from his music. I’m not even sure if I can even mention him on this blog without getting done by Child Protection agencies. Teenage sailor Jessica Watson I’ll let off the hook as she refers to her book as “her story”, although it ends up under biographies in bookstores as there is no other section for it. But, while I’ll read a good story (and Jessica’s certainly is that), I don’t to read about a teenager’s life. I remember being a teenager. I was awful, even more cranky than I am now.

I can be reasonable. I know the Stig is not trying to annoy me personally. (I am not sure about Bieber. That HAIR! That music! That relentless sensitivity! Why can’t he be sulky, spotty and into incoherent thrash metal like a regular teenager.) But, just as a short book is called a novella to distinguish it from the longer novel, I think we need a commonly –used word to distinguish a description of events from a look-back over a life. How about an biographette? Or biographella? Or, if you want to give it an Irish feel, a biographeen?

I know, I could just get over it. But I maintain an interesting experience is not the full story. An autobiography does not, as far as I can see, refer to writing about your life when you can’t remember the first five years and suspect you have another seventy to come. When I buy a biography, I expect more than snippets from a whipper-snapper.

Am I so wrong? Am I just becoming Captain Cranky-Pants in my old age?

And, if I am that old, am I old enough to write my auto-biography?

A Life In Words – Cameron Rogers on writing on the road

We  both live in Australia but I end up interviewing Australian author Cameron Rogers on the other side of the world. We’re in Central Park, New York, where he is taking a break from working on his upcoming novel, Fateless.

He wrote the bulk of it in Melbourne where he lived for the last decade, but he’s doing the final edits while travelling around the world. He’s worked on the manuscript – which he calls, not entirely affectionately, “the brick” – in the States, on the Royal Mile in Edinburgh, near an Icelandic glacier, in England, Germany and Graceland, all over Paris, while camping in the Dandenongs and in between checking out Muddy Waters’ shack and the Reichstag.

Sounds fun. So is writing all bumming around the world, scribbling a few words in exotic climes?

Cameron grins. “It’s a feast or a famine.” Mainly a famine. He’s been crashing on sofas and working on other things too, a travel article here, or a food piece there. They add a few welcome dollars to the travel fund. But, in the main, he’s financed this trip through royalties, selling almost everything he owns and renting out his room in Melbourne. It sounds spartan, but Cameron relishes the challenge of living in the moment.

“My friend subscribes to the idea of a two bag theory: that is, never own more than two bags worth of things you aren’t willing to part with. That way, if you need to, you can get up and go at a moment’s notice. I like that idea a lot, not only for the freedom it allows, but because it stops your possessions owning you. My father is a bushman to the bone, and so’s my brother. An appreciation of practical expediency is probably genetic.  And very William Gibson.”

Cameron is a fan of science fiction and fantasy writers such as William Gibson and Neil Gaiman, and his writing showcases his interest in the fantastical, bizarre and philosophical. Fateless and his previous novel, the Music of Razors, are both dark adult fantasy but Cameron’s first sales were to other avid Sci-Fi fans – his classmates in Cairns. “I had a Star Wars fixation as a kid. So I started a tiny business writing illustrated stories to order for classmates. I wrote them in exercise pads and sold them for about three dollars.”

His first work to be published was a young-adult novel entitled The Vampires and, in between working on Music of Razors and Fateless, in 2005 he released Nicholas and the Chronoporter under the name Rowley Monkfish. Writing for kids is a different experience again, and one Cameron enjoyed. “The upside of doing kids’ stuff though is that they’re more receptive to the fantastical, and you really can go nuts with those stories, so long as you don’t go offending any librarians. After all, they are the ones who actually buy the books.”

Cameron should know about being receptive to the fantastical. He’s lived a very varied life, with more jobs in a year than many people hold in decade. Many of them have more than a touch of the absurd. He’s been an itinerant theatre student, a stage director, a stand-up comic and had a question mark instead of a photo in his high school yearbook. He spent three months cutting up vegetables in the company of a defecting Soviet weightlifter and almost ended up working in what turned out to be a Yakuza-run all-gay bowling alley in Kyoto.

He wanted to be director, but after a brief stint studying drama, decided to try writing instead. “I abandoned theatre studies after second year when I realised that 95% of all actors are usually out of work anyway, and I didn’t need to study for that.”

His passion for showing the world the scenes he sees so clearly still burns strongly, even if he no longer wants to act. Halfway around the world and working on his manuscript, Cameron is using all his available time and money to get his story, Fateless, out there and into people’s hands and heads. His dedication to the manuscript is balanced by his determination to live in the moment and try everything the world can offer and his advice for aspiring writers is to do the same.

“Experience things. Explore your life.  Document it, either plainly or dressed up as a metaphor inside a novel. But be honest and observant about it. It’s what people look for in a book, even if they don’t consciously know it.  That means being honest with yourself, about yourself.  Readers can smell a fake a mile off.”

Readers are making books better – on non-fiction and well written stories

I’ve always thought of myself as a reasonably good writer, so it was a shock when I got my thesis draft back from my course coordinator with a huge “rewrite” on the cover. I had put in a lot of time and effort to making it both accessible and entertaining while still covering my topic thoroughly. But according to my coordinator, it needed to be completely changed.

I was confused. My other reviewers had been very positive. Had she found it incorrect or boring or difficult to wade through? What was the issue?

She’d enjoyed it, she said. But that was part of the problem. I had made it too easy and enjoyable to read. It wasn’t suitable because it wasn’t written in academic language. It needed to be – and these are the words she used – more dense.

I remember thinking that there was something clearly wrong with the idea of writing a book on your work that no one would enjoy reading. Surely the point of a book is to share information in a lively way; to give knowledgeable readers an enjoyable read and people new to the subject an interest in the area? Surely people wanted to read specialist texts to be informed, not to be excluded?

This is why the discovery of non-fiction books such as Norman Doidges The Brain That Changes Itself on Boomerang Books 50 Books You Can’t Put Down delights me so much. One of the things that I enjoy most about hitting a bookstore these days is the profusion of well-written, informative and – yes – amusing books that line the non-fiction shelves. From Gladwell to Diamond, from historical biographies to Guides for Dummies, the information is out there and actively trying to engage the audience.

We no longer assume that people who don’t have knowledge don’t want it. Non-fiction specialist books no longer practise hiding simple statements in impenetrable thickets of academic verbosity. They can’t afford to. The reading public has proven to be intelligent, voracious and discerning, demanding excellent writing along with information. Writers that stick to the elitist convention of squirreling away knowledge behind dense phrasing and academic language will find themselves passed over for writers that credit their readers with both a brain and taste. Coming from wading through countless overwrought books on literature when I was completing my English degree, I can’t describe how happy this change in attitude makes me.

The Brain That Changes Itself is, fittingly enough, about changes that people thought were impossible. It’s the study of neuroplasticity, of overcoming brain limitations and challenging the notion that an old dog can’t learn new tricks. It combines study and scientific explanation with the personal journeys of both researchers and patients in this area. It is a hopeful, engaging and inspiring read, and I can’t recommend it highly enough.

Also on the list is Life in His Hands by Susan Wyndham, a fascinating book on the relationship forged between controversial neurosurgeon Charlie Teo and one of his patients, the classical pianist Aaron McMillan, when McMillan is diagnosed with a rare and aggressive brain tumour at the age of 24. And, for people looking for something that isn’t brain surgery, try The Happiest Refugee by Anh Do, an Australian comedian whose family escaped war-torn Vietnam by boat. It’s a timely, moving and occasionally highly amusing tale of how he and his family faced a whole new set of challenges as immigrants to Australia, and how they adapted to life in the “Lucky Country”.

These books and others are all part of the 2010 Get Reading! program, Australia’s largest annual celebration of books running from 25 August to 30 September with the aim of encouraging everyone to pick up a book and get reading. As part of this, Boomerang Books is offering a free book when you purchase one of the 50 Books You Can’t Put Down, either “10 Short Stories You Must Read in 2010” or “Tickled Onions And Other Funny Stories”.

There’s plenty of enjoyable and informative reads in there, and I can’t wait to get my brain on them. How about you?

Could Batman take Edward? Fantasy males and mistaken ideals.

I have taken a few potshots at Twilight recently and have a confession to make. I may be firmly off Team Edward but I have felt -and still feel – the allure of a fictional man. Mr Rochester of Jane Eyre, Wesley from the Princess Bride and even Raistlin from Dragonlance have all warmed my heart briefly and oh-so-embarrassingly, but there’s only one fictional character who can be my One Twue Wuv.

I admit it, it’s Batman. Something about that cape and cowl and tortured soul just makes me want to pull on my underwear over my tights and go fight crime with him. I liked him in the movies, I like him in the comics, and I think that he’s still adorable at 50 and with spinal augmentation (thanks to imaginative artworks of Alex Ross in graphic novels such as Kingdom Come).  Would I like to ride with Batman? Oh, yes please.

And I am not alone in this. At the Warner Bros. Movie World parade in the Gold Coast, the kids may have been laughing with the Looney Tunes but most of the older women were busy admiring Batman’s rubberised pecs. Wealthy, self-assured and utterly screwed-up, Batman owes his appeal to his brooding good looks, big brain and occasional bad manners.

Sound familiar? It’s a common theme. When it comes to writing a fictional fantasy man, Stephenie Meyers is following in the well-worn footsteps of writers such as Byron, Austen and Brontë and giving us a hero that is difficult to like or keep up with but all too easy to fancy. Twilight’s heroes certainly aren’t the first characters to angst their way into their reader’s fantasies. If, like me, you have sighed over the infamous Mr. Darcy or Heathcliff of Wuthering Heights, you’ll have some sympathy for girls with a taste for anti-heroes and Byronic heroes.

And while it might seem that Twilight came out of the blue, it may have been the right book in the right place. Twilight successfully taps into the voracious market of romance and that of young adult books, and taking a swipe out of the supernatural market while it’s at it. There is a tendency to ignore romance fiction but it’s a booming market and its audience is 90% women. In the USA in 2008 it sold the largest share of the market, with 75 million Americans reading at least one romance novel that year.

Twilight is a dark romance story at its heart, with a brooding male hero (in fact, quite a few brooding male heroes). And as a teenage reader, when you are surrounded everyday in school by fifty hyperactive boys with breaking voices, clumsy feet and a tendency to tease, the appeal of a silent type like Edward Cullen is pretty obvious. Less likely to pull your hair, at least when he is being taciturn and grumpy he’s not being noisy about it.

Adding the supernatural twist is just the icing on the cake. Vampires tick off all the boxes as a classic take on the perfect man – a handsome Prince, come to whisk you away from all this. Tall, dark, handsome, – and usually cultured, powerful and wealthy. Lets face it, it’s all the benefits of a young man’s body with the budget of a sugar daddy and the style of a Hugo Boss model. Oh, and they have super-strength and can fly. I mean, really, what’s not to love?

Other than the fact that he keeps trying to eat you? And, you know, he’s not Batman.

While I have my own reasons for disliking Twilight and believing that Edward and Bella’s unequal relationship is a terrible example for very young girls to be reading (no, breaking into your room at night, choosing your friends and dismantling your car is not romantic, call the cops if it happens) I can’t plead innocence on understanding the appeal of literary bad boys.

All I can ask for also understanding myself that these characters are fantasy, and I would probably want to punch them in five minutes if we really started going out. And, for girls just starting out on understanding relationships, that their parents take the care to explain that, really, having a controlling boyfriend in his hundreds who alienates you from all your friends would not be as much fun as Bella seems to think it is. That declarations of eternal love is not all it takes to have a decent relationships and that sometimes – in fact a lot of the times – romance books get it really, really wrong.

Well, that and a bat signal.

Damsels are out, kick-ass is in – fantasy covers go hardcore

The results of Orbit’s study of fantasy covers is in, and it’s official –  distressed damsels in high heels are out, and  kick-ass brunettes are very firmly in.

They should know, as Orbit is one of the world’s largest publishers of Science Fiction and Fantasy.  Orbit UK’s authors include Iain M. Banks, Terry Brooks and Laurell K. Hamilton while Orbit Australia publishes writers from Australia and New Zealand, including Trudi Canavan, Pamela Freeman and Joel Shepherd.

Each year they do a highly scientific survey of cover art elements for the top fantasy novels published in the previous year.  Okay, not that scientific. An intern looks through lots of covers with a checklist. Perhaps it’s less Sci-Fi than many of their books, but with categories like Damsels (in distress), Damsels (no distress) and Dark Cover of Meaninglessness, it’s an entertaining take and I’m doubtful a robot could analyse the covers the same way . Unless it was Marvin the Paranoid Android, but he’d be too depressed by the whole thing to see the funny side.

The results are in for 2009, and it’s painting a very different cover girl to 2008. Moving from pouting in clubbing gear to pulling a piece from her combats, 2009’s ideal woman is less likely to be kissing a vampire and more likely to be kicking your ass. The women of fantasy are getting so capable-looking that Orbit are planning to retire the Damsel in distress category. With just 10 damsels looking distressed and 70 looking not just undistressed but more bad-ass than a herd of delinquent donkeys, a section for women awaiting rescue is no longer needed.

As a girl who wanted to be She-ra and only wanted Prince Charming to turn up so I could steal his horse, I approve and I’m glad to see that today’s reading audience does too. Enough with the faffy maidens being rescued, today’s girl can sort themself out, thank you very much.  Pass over the weapon and the sensible shoes, we’re off to kick a vampire in their annoying pointy little teeth.

Of course, that’s just 2009. By the end of 2010 Orbit could be announcing a return to dragons and castles and moons and some woman in corset looking like she has lost her keys to the castle on a moonlight night, and needs to hail a dragon to get her there.  Fantasy covers are interesting in that they are very trend-based – how many black and red Twilight imitation covers have you seen since the series became a smash hit? Authors with one idea for a cover frequently have to put up with their characters being tweaked, transformed and occasionally twisted completely out of shape to fit this season’s look.

This leads to more than a few annoying clichés; your book may be a witty ground-breaking piece of feminist fantasy, but your covergirl seems to have missed the memo. There’re more backless dresses and tramp stamps than you’ll find at the Logies, and the same tendency to pose. Or the “headless-torso” cover, assumedly to make it easy for the reader to project themselves on to the main character, which in practice makes it look like all the action in the book takes place after the protagonist is decapitated.  How are you going to fight the forces of darkness when you don’t even have a brain?

…actually, this might explain Bella Swan.

Anyway, all cheap shots at Twilight-aside, it’s encouraging that women on fantasy book covers are becoming less mopey and more kick-ass. It reflects both a change in the reader (as a cover-type that doesn’t sell isn’t likely to be repeated) and a welcome change from the passive female protagonist. The times they are a changin’, and today’s fantasy readers – which includes a huge amount of teenage girls, reflecting their opinions on what women should behave like – are ready to meet it.

In combats and with a kick-ass attitude, of course.

Don’t Quit Your Day Job – making a living from writing.

Occasionally when I pick up a book I look at the blurb and flick through a few pages and think “I could write this.”

It seems relatively simple. Write a book. Get it published. Become the next Stephanie Meyers, only with less issues on sparkly ice-cold boyfriends. From there on in, it’s on to the sequels and movie rights and appearing at book festivals looking smug. Write a few words every day, attend parties and – to quote an actor in the Simpsons when he is asked how he sleeps at night after making $80 million for a movie of him – sleep “on top of a pile of money with many beautiful ladies.”

Or maybe I don’t even need to write a book from scratch. Perhaps I could do a Jessica Watson and cobble together something I made earlier. Her book, True Spirit, is at number one on the Australian bestseller list, according to Nielsen BookScan. It sold 10,000 copies of  sold in 10 days, and is based on the blogs she has already written when she set out at the age of 16 on her adventurous attempt become the youngest person to sail solo around the globe.

The trip from blogging to book sounds convenient. A bit of revision and re-writing and voila! Instant paycheque. And I can just send out copies to relations at Christmas instead of having to fill in everything I have been up to in the Christmas cards. (They might find the bit about sleeping with pretty ladies on piles of money a bit strange anyway.)

Sounds tempting, doesn’t it? But, looking at the news today, perhaps I should take a raincheck on giving up my regular paycheque to write my magnum opus.  Two-thirds of professional writers in Australia earned less than $4000 in 2007-08 directly from their writings and the profession remains the least financially rewarded of all artistic occupations. And other artists, such as musicians and painters, aren’t rolling in it and devoting all day to the craft either. The average artist can expect to work in at least one other job to support themselves, and 16 per cent earn less than $10,000 a year, according to What’s Your Other Job?,  an analysis of arts employment in Australia and the straight-from-the-mouth-of-your mother report titled Do You Really Expect to Get Paid?, an economic study of professional artists. On that income, you’ll be lucky to be sleeping on a bed at all, never mind with pretty people.

But it’s not all doom and gloom and selling the kids’ medicine for printer ink. According to the Sydney Morning Herald’s cheerily titled “Why you’ll never make a living as an artist” (reckon the sub-editor that came up with that title was feeling a little bitter?) artists are becoming better multi-taskers and more adaptable to working outside their chosen field.

Many more artists are beginning to see their careers in terms of a portfolio. <…> Their working life is made up of short-term engagements or projects rather than a ”traditional linear trajectory beginning with training, passing through an emerging phase, arriving at establishment and continuing with a life devoted exclusively to a core creative practice”. <…> Artists are mixing up original creative work with arts-related work, some collaborative ventures, study, travel and research.

And, as the Australian points out, “Artists don’t do it for the money” and the changing trend towards part-time artists indicates that many have made peace with making art while acknowledging the need to support themselves. “Mostly people say they want to be artists because they want to, but no matter how you look at it, the money does matter.” David Throsby, who co-authored the Do You Really Expect to Get Paid? states. “I’m not sure artists see money as a form of status but they do see it as a necessity.”

It’s said that everyone has a book in them. (I always figured mine would be Helen Fielding and Chuck Palahnuik go on a roadtrip with Bill Bryson, although if I could harness a thimble-full of their ability I would be a very happy woman.) The question is, before you quit your day job, are you willing to write it for the sheer love and the adventure of trying and work for your supper somewhere else?

Blog Directory for NSW

Spiders, sharks and other Belizean hobbies

I have read up on Belize in my Rough Guide and been in the country for 6 hours and, as yet, no one has answered the most pressing question I have about the country.

To whit, why is there a tarantula in the box next to the coffee machine?

Like most people, I would normally assume that a box next to the coffee machine would contain beverage related items.  I would imagine the mesh lid would be to keep flies off the things within. Perhaps some sugar and tea bags. Maybe, if I get really lucky, a few packets of biscuits. These would be the things that normally I would expect to find in a box on a table next to the coffee machine.

But no. There is a tarantula. Approximately 5 inches of sulking black arachnid, hunched in readiness next to the spot where the box flips open. Perhaps he wants out. Perhaps he wants a coffee. Perhaps Belizeans sprinkle spiders on the foam of cappuccinos, like squirmy furious chocolate flakes. Who knows?

Belize is insane.

Luckily, the hostel that I am staying in has a book on tarantulas. I have been reading this at a furious speed, hoping that it will teach me some sort of method of pacifying the big spiders, or avoiding them, or at least teach me the Tarantul-ic for “And I, for one, would like to welcome our new arachnid overlords.” If in doubt, I can always use it to throw at them as I run away.

The book is being reassuring. Apparently tarantulas are pretty shy creatures far more happy skulking in their burrows waiting for passing insects than hiding next to the coffee. Apparently they are masters of quiet disguise and catching tarantulas is difficult.

Wish someone had told that to old Eight-Huge-Furry-Legs by the coffee machine.

For most countrys, these huge spiders are exotic creatures to avoid unless they are behind glass. In Belize tarantula catching is a fun thing for small children to do. According to a pamphlet in the hostel. some methods of capture include tapping on their burrows, sticking a lollipop stick down the burrows and the “digital insertion” method which involves – you guessed it – sticking your fingers down their burrows.

Belize is really insane.

This is not the first encounter I have had in Belize with animals I would rather stay away from. The boats here offer to take you snorkelling off the reef, the second biggest in the world, where you can see manatees and green turtles.  Our boat, which was billed as snorkelling and beer, decided that it would be fun to hurl large quantities of food over the side to attract nurse sharks BEFORE we jump in.

I can hear the voices of my ancestors bitching. “Millions of years we spent AVOIDING these things – we left the ocean to get away from them – and now you go straight back IN. Fine. Go extinct then.” Twenty minutes later, our snorkelling guide hauls a huge and gurning eel from its hole in a rock and waves it at us. Do we want to touch it? I look at the baleful eyeballs and strong jaws and decide I am not yet that crazy, thanks.

And, while I might be missing out here, I’m also just not brave enough to try the “digital insertion” method of tarantula catching. I’ll stick to reading about them, and I think I’ll pass on the tarantula coffee too.

Disease, death and vacation

This alarmingly late blog is brought to you courtesy of the Mexican Death Flu. I tried to write something last week, but thanks to alternating chills, fever and hallucinations, I decided to hold off posting until I was feeling a bit better. Otherwise you would be reading what reads more like free verse than a blog. “So cold, so very cold. Argh too hot now! Eep. Donde esta les baños, por favor?”

While being ill is never fun, being ill on vacation is even less so. Everyone else is having a wonderful time drinking margueritas and salsa dancing and climbing ruins, you are getting really familiar with the bathroom furniture. Everyone wants to see photos of the Mayan pyramids, no one wants to see Mexican bathrooms.

But the main drawback to being ill in the jungle is the fact that I lack both bookshops and the brainpower to read the various books I do have. The moment I get ill, all my big girl books go out the window and I desperately want to read something unchallenging. Something as fluffy, sunny and devoid of content as the inside of Jessica Simpson’s head. My perfect novel right now might be a story about how a happy plump pony found the carrot and ate it or something equally silly, probably by Sophie Kinsella.

However there is no bookshop in the “Eco Jungle Lodge”. It makes up for it with a truly amazing quantity of insects.  In between chills and spills, I am fighting the mosquitoes for every drop of my blood and the ants for every inch of space in my room. Our room contains 400 ants, 50 assorted spiders, a black caterpillar with goth-punk jet-black spikes and a cockroach the size of a small pony.

I did debate hitting the cockroach with my copy of Wolf Hall – which is more than heavy enough to take out a cockroach, even a pony-sized one – but he spends so much time in the bathroom with me it seems churlish to wipe out my only constant companion through my ill times.

My bag is packed with weighty reads that make the most of their word count. My current choices include 1491 (about the Americas before Europe colonised and decimated the population with various plagues), Wolf Hall (Tudor London during a time of politics, intrigue and plague), and The Brain That Changes Itself which contains enough debilitating diseases to shake a large replacement-for-a-stick at.

Plague and disease appears to be a bit of a theme in my rucksack. I’m not even looking at my copy of Guns, Germs and Steel, which is to be a book that – despite having had recommended by who knows how many friends – I seem fated not to read. I always feel embarrassed when I remember I haven’t read it. It’s been released for over a decade, and hits all my hot spots (history, linguistics and a healthy dose of violence, oh my) but I keep missing it. It is inevitable but oddly elusive – like that cute friend you never got around to dating or a video release of a hook-up between Lindsay Lohan and Tommy Lee. I should really get around to it.

None the less, although the timing might appear good – bored as I am in the jungle with only a creaking fan and a cockroach pony to amuse me – I think I might leave reading it a few days. Reading these books, it’s all too easy to persuade myself that I do not have a case of the flu but the Black Death. Graphic descriptions of pus-filled buboes are all the more disturbing for the fact that I am not entirely sure what a bubo is. While reading about plague, I´m ticking off my symptoms. Chills? Check.  Fever? Check. Hallucinations? Well, how else do you explain the cockroach pony in the bathroom?

Reading about diseases that have you hearty at breakfast, dead by noon is even more alarming when you feel pretty awful at breakfast. What, am I going to be dead by 10am? I won´t have even caught up on my email by then. Never mind getting this week´s post out. Wish me luck. Or send insecticide.

A Life in Words – Seanan McGuire on Aussiecon, the Campbell award and the end of the world

Campbell award nominee Seanan McGuire is a busy woman. The author of the Toby Daye fairytale noir series, of which novels Rosemary and Rue and A Local Habitation have been released, she is currently hard at work editing and writing the next three. When not writing she composes and performs science-fiction, fantasy, and horror-related songs, with 3 released CDs and another in the works. She is working on Midnight Blue Light Special, the second in a series about cryptozoologists with a surreal approach to monster-hunting; researching Nativity of Chance, an urban fantasy in the Tim Powers style of weird; working on Deathless, a supernatural romance with a Romero twist; and working on Sit, Stay, I Hate You, the second novel starring teenage shape shifter Clady Porter. She also writes “science fiction zombie political thrillers” as Mira Grant, with first of Mira’s books, Feed, out this year.

She took a few moments out from writing, planning an Australian visit and probably world domination to answer a few questions for us.

1. Are you looking forward to meeting some of our fascinatingly dangerous wildlife here in Australia, and are there any Australian tales just begging to be told?

I have wanted to go to Australia since I was five years old and they started showing the Dot and the Kangaroo specials on local kiddie TV.  I can’t begin to express how excited I am.  I’m going to a bunch of reptile parks and zoos, I’m setting up a few tours, and I really hope I get to see lots of wonderful things we don’t have in California.  (I refer to my home state as “Australia West,” due to our large number of venomous creatures, and fondness for being on fire.)

I want to set one of the later InCryptid books in Australia.  I think Jonathan and Shelby Price would have a really lovely time there.

2. Can you tell me a little about the 2010 Campbell Award for Best New Writer, and what it means for you to be nominated?

The Campbell Award for Best New Writer is given in conjunction with the Hugo Awards, and is essentially a shiny gold star that says “well done, you.”  Also, you get a tiara.  New speculative fiction authors are eligible for two years from their first publication.  Being nominated is…I cried.  I really, truly cried.  I never thought I’d make the ballot, and being nominated is a crazy fever dream honor.  And if I win, I get a tiara in Australia, which is like being crowned Princess of the Kingdom of Poison and Flame.  That’s like a life’s goal, right there.

3. What will you be bringing to read on the trip, and what can’t a writer travel without?

I don’t know what I’ll be bringing to read, other than probably The Stand by Stephen King (one of my favorite books of all time), and probably some guide books.  I have a lot of writing to do while I’m traveling, so I figure most of my “free time” will be spent doing that.  A writer’s work is never done! 

As for what a writer can’t travel without…in my case, that means laptop, power cord, adapter (for local plugs, as many countries have different outlet types), iPod, good speakers, day planner, pens, notebooks, and the sheer stubborn will to ignore interesting things in favor of editing.  A digital camera is also good, since that helps with using things you saw in your travels accurately when incorporating them into future stories.

4. A lot of people would imagine that writing fiction – especially supernatural and horror – would let you off the hook in terms of keeping it real, but you have said that research is crucial to writing. What’s your approach to making the impossible all too possible in your books?

Research, reading, and logic.  For example: What makes a mammal?  Most people answer “warm blood, has hair, nurses its young,” while making all sorts of other assumptions about internal biology.  But not all mammals are warm-blooded — the naked mole rat is an ectotherm, just like a lizard.  Not all mammals actually nurse their young — some, like the echidna, lactate through specialized sweat glands, instead of through teats.  In the end, all that matters is hair.  So I can use real-world biology to justify a species of telepathic parastic wasps that look just like human beings…right up until they decide you’re a danger to the hive.

Reading non-fiction, travel, and being willing to learn lots of details about horrible things will go a long way toward making the unreal as realistic as possible…and sometimes that’s the scariest stuff of all.

5. For Feed, a book on journalism in a post-zombie apocalypse world, you did a lot of learning on virology while coming up with a zombie strain. What stranger than fiction fact could you not have made up, and should we really be worrying about a world ending virus? 

Oh, most of them.  Viruses are some of the scariest things in the world.  They’re all around us, they’ve always been with us — hell, there’s DNA evidence to indicate that they made us.  Probably the creepiest thing I learned while studying virology was that every species has its own pox virus.  Cowpox can give some protection from smallpox (chickenpox can’t, because it’s not actually a member of that family).  So the chance that, say, kangaroopox will someday jump to the human population isn’t entirely outside the realm of possibility.

I think that worrying about a global pandemic is, sadly, only sensible.  People don’t respect quarantine procedures very well, they don’t necessarily think about what they’re doing before, say, going to an area where malaria is endemic without taking their anti-malarial drugs, and new diseases are arising every day.  Travel means things can spread before we even know that they exist.  I highly recommend reading The Return of the Black Death: The World’s Greatest Serial Killer, The Speckled Monster, and Virus X if you want to know more.

6. What advice would you give a budding writer with a big idea for a story?

Don’t feel like you have to write it right away, or like you have to get it right the first time.  I have some big ideas that I’m still holding off on, because I’m not quite where I want to be as a writer before I tackle them.  At the same time, don’t shy away from a challenge; tackle it with both feet, and see where it takes you.  You can always revise things until they work.

Never give up.  Nothing is perfect right out the starting gate; that’s what drafts are for.

***

If you want to catch her, she will be visiting Melbourne for Aussiecon 4 (Worldcon 2010) from Sep 2-6, 2010, and would love to chat about the supernatural, the bizarrely natural, virology, fantasy and funny genre fiction and My Little Ponies. And writing, of course.

No Book Left Behind – more books and baggage

Last week I blogged about battling the twin demons of my book addiction and my baggage allowance. Several people suggested sensible options for me to look into as a traveller with a distressing tendency to weigh my luggage down with all things literary.     

While lacking a Kindle or iPad (or perhaps a manservant to carry my vast bags of books and read them to me while feeding me grapes) on this trip due to poor planning, I do have another option. I don’t have to lug the full collection up hill and down dale and past suspicious security staff. Once I read the books I could, of course, leave them behind. 

Or can I? I am conflicted. On one hand, I can acknowledge that this is a sensible solution and that not every book plucked from the airport shop is a keeper for life. I’ve really enjoyed reading the hilarious biography of Ozzy Osbourne (called with a typical lack of fluff, “I Am Ozzy”) but it’s probably not going to end up on any Classics of Literature lists, unless that list has a sub-section for texts with the most inventive and thorough use of the word “f*ck”. 

On the other hand, the suggestion of walking away from a read book inspires thoughts of donning camos and daubing warpaint on my face, screaming “No book left behind!” as I lurch valiantly through the airport with a full kit bag of the things thrown over my shoulder. 

Let’s see security react to that.    

Normally I don’t have to deal with this issue. Most hostels and motels have a swap library where you can trade in your book for something left behind by a previous traveller, safe in the knowledge that the book will go to someone who will read it (as opposed to in the bin) and you will get something to read in return.   
 
This arrangement is not without flaws, it’s true. One hostel I turned up to had an excellent selection of books I wanted to read but all of them were in German. Another time I spent three interminable days on a tiny island in the company of what I believe to be the worst historical romance ever written. The blurb on the back should have read “one woman’s brave quest to find love despite her own unloveliness, bitchiness, immense stupidity and people dying every two minutes”. But hostel book swapping is usually a reasonable plan and occasionally introduces you to authors you hadn’t come across before.   
 
But in Thailand, this isn’t an option. For possibly the first time in my life, my hotel is not a budget option. Tempted by the fact that Bangkok is one of the cheapest cities in the world to live it up, and seriously good deal online, we‘re splashing out on our accommodation and going to four stars. And the hotel is amazing. The pillows are the size of surf boards, the bathroom is bigger than several of the apartments I have rented while back-packing.     
 
The enormous breakfast buffet includes the usual suspects – fried pig for the unhealthy, fruit and nuts for the health conscious (both for me) – but also has a chef whose job is to cook waffles and serve them with melted chocolate or honey or fresh berries. I could get used to this. Why do we not have a waffle chef at home?
The infinity pool stretches into the sky, surrounded by outdoor Jacuzzis overlooking the river below. They have everything. Apart from a book swap. I sit on my fluffy towel and sigh, as smiling Thais try to cheer me up by bringing me watermelon on a stick.   
 
Never mind, my partner says. All these luxuries are a temporary thing. We’ll be back to budget hostels and using books a pillows, door stops and cockroach crushers again soon.      
 
We will. So I’m going to enjoy my fluffy towel while it lasts, and ready my books for some serious swapping.
 

Overweight and under-read – on books and bags

I have a problem. Too many books and not enough baggage allowance.

I have this problem every time I travel. Between my books on the destination (a Rough Guide, a local language book and maybe a biography or travelogue from someone who has been there) and books to read at the destination (usually a few real-life reads and a couple of chick lits for beach days and hangover days) and, of course, a big book to get me through the plane ride without going insane (huge historical epics like Wolf Hall are good for this), I usually end up with a luggage that is both too heavy to lift and straining at the seams with books.

There are books in my hand luggage. As many as I can squeeze, as they never actually weigh your hand luggage if it is reasonably small in size. The only real disadvantage to carrying around over 15 kilos in printed matter is lurching lopsidedly ala Quasimodo through the security checks. (For some reason, they always stop people carrying weighty-looking handbags with straining straps and unusually pointy bits poking out the bag’s edges. Go figure.)

There are books throughout my luggage. Wrapped in towels for protection (books have feelings too, and I hate it when the corners get dog-eared and you haven‘t even read it yet) and covered with my clothes to protect them from knocks, it’s books, books, books.

I once got stopped for a total search in the States and, after removing a few pieces of underwear and toiletries, the security staff got to my stash of books. All eight of them. Opening and closing each one, they rifled the pages, possibly looking for cut-out compartments containing drugs, diamonds or possibly very tiny illegal immigrants. Nothing doing. Then they rifled again, this time looking more closely between each page and holding the book upside and shaking it to see what fell out.

Nothing but a Snickers wrapper.

“How long are you going for, Miss?” asked one, a large lady who was flicking in bemusement through my Marion Keyes‘.

“A week. Well, six days really.”

She looked at me with doubtful eyes. “Honey, and you think you are going to read all these?”

Well, maybe not but as a backpacker I’d rather have too many books than be stuck on the world’s slowest bus (Morocco; Agadir to Marrakech, 140 miles in just under 10 hours complete with a visit to the bus drivers aunt‘s place where we all had to stay ON the bus while the driver had some tea, in case you are wondering) with nothing to read.

I admit it, I over pack when it comes to books. And sometimes that still just isn’t enough books for my liking. I find myself making insane compromises in my head. “Hey, I can fit another book if I just take out my raincoat. And that space for my shoes could fit two, or maybe one really fat book like Wolf Hall. And, seriously, do I really need anti-malarial drugs and deodorant? Like, really?”

The very things that normally make books appealing to me – huge long epics in small print with more pages than Imelda Marcos has shoes or Tony Abbott has chest hair – make them a nightmare to carry around. You can justify them, it’s true. They may be handy for squashing insects, unwanted amorous locals and possibly small riots but hauling a copy of Wolf Hall halfway round the world is costing me weight in my luggage allowance and space that I need that for other things. I need to realise this.

I need to sensible. I need to pack less books.

Otherwise, where will I put the books I BUY on the trip?

A Life in Words – on co-writing Chanel Sweethearts with half of Cate Kendall

While writing is often seen as a lonely profession, some writers buck the trend and team up. I caught up with half of Cate Kendall to ask her a few questions about co-writing, creating psuedonyms and lampooning yummy mummies.

Cate Kendall is actually a pseudonym for the writing team Lisa Blundell and Michelle Hamer. Michelle, this is your third book co-written with Lisa so it’s obviously working out well for you both. What makes writing as a team so enjoyable for you?

I have written three books on my own and worked as a journalist for more than 20 years – most recently as a freelancer, which is a pretty solitary existence. For me one of the best things about working in a team is knowing that there is someone to pick up the slack if you are having a bad week and someone who loves the book as much as I do. When we get good reviews, or sell overseas it’s great to have each other to celebrate with. It’s also a really interesting working experience; being able to bounce off each other and being open to doing things someone else’s way. It’s good for the ego!

So, why Cate Kendall as a name, and have you an image of what Cate would look like if she were a real person?

We chose Cate Kendall randomly, after trying out dozens of other names. In the end, this was the one that clicked with both of us. I imagine Cate to be petite, with curly black hair, funky little glasses and vintage fashion – nothing like either of us!

What do you both bring to the book?

Lisa is excellent at creating the big picture structure of the book. She is brilliant at the fashion details and in creating gorgeous interior design. I read her descriptions of some of the houses our characters live in, and I just want to move in!

I focus more on the interior lives of the characters, the emotional stuff and their motivations. Because I’ve been a journo for so long I am also brutal when it comes to the editing, so I tend to slash and burn words with greater ease. But neither of us is precious about our work, in the end writing a great book is the main aim.

Do you often disagree, and what’s the biggest bone of contention?

We rarely disagree. When we do it will probably be about something quite small. We have learnt that if one of us cares enough to fight for a scene or a character then the other will accept that is important to them and let it go. After writing three books together (and our fourth is just about finished) we seem to have got it down to a fine art, so personalities don’t come into it.

Your books lampoon the yummy mummy culture, and take a satiric swipe at lots of elements of the social scene. Do you ever take a friendly swipe at each other in your novels, or use yourselves as a reference?

We have a lot of respect for each other as people and writers. We would never make fun of the other in the books or anywhere else. We both use experiences from our lives in the books; but only as snippets here and there. We borrow moments from real life to create fiction.

If you were advising writers on looking for a writing partner, what would you tell them?

I’m not really sure. Neither of us set out to find a writing partner or even to write a book together. It was just one of those things that happened. I’d say that you would have to be clear how you were going to make the process happen and be sure that neither of you was hoping for glory, just to create a great book and have some fun along the way. I think that was the secret for us – we just set out to have a bit of fun.

True Life tales

I’m always a bit divided on true-life travel stories. On good days, tales of the indomitable human spirit triumphing over adversity and tough terrain uplifts my soul and inspire me.

But on bad days, when getting out of bed is a major battle and surviving until lunch without returning to it in tears looks unlikely, the last thing I want to hear is about some smug git who cycled across Antarctica blindfolded. I am feeling sorry enough for myself already without comparing myself to some little boy with no limbs and a burlap bag for a body who STILL managed to climb Mount Everest to raise money for orphaned kittens with sore paws.

Using only his teeth. In a blizzard. While on fire and being chased by goats.

Which may be why more personal books such Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat, Pray, Love appealed to me. I’m late to the party on this one, I admit. Everyone I know has already read it, Julia Roberts is starring in the movie of it, I feel like the kid who finally persuaded her folks to let her get a mobile when all the other kids have moved on to iPhones.

So, why is it so popular? Gilbert’s book is more travelogue than triumph story, 350 pages or so of navel-gazing, documenting her round-the-world search for happiness and inner peace and finding love in the process. It is all about her, but the light tone, funny moments and travel tales give a great insight into her personal journey without creating a book that comes across as being as self-absorbed as a sponge that has just peed itself. She strikes the balance of conversational and humourous well to a good effect, and the fact that this book became a best-seller shouldn’t be a surprise. It’s not the first tale of travel and self-discovery out there, and to my mind (and sorry, Elizabeth) it’s good, but not amongst the very best.

My Family and Other Animals is one of my personal favourites. Gerald Durrell was 10 when his family decided they could no longer endure the damp English climate, and they did what any sensible family would do: sell their house and relocate to the sunny Greek isle of Corfu. Some years later, and now a naturalist, zookeeper, conservationist, he set out to write about the natural history of the Greek island of Corfu, but made the “grave mistake” of introducing his family into the book in the first few pages.

“Having got themselves on paper, they then proceeded to establish themselves and invite various friends to share the chapters. It was only with the greatest difficulty, and by exercising considerable cunning, that I manages to retain a few pages here and there which I could devote exclusively to animals.”

Durrell’s wry and witty description growing up with a family plagued by their own follies, fires, firearms and eccentric hangers-on (as well as his habit of bringing home house-guests such as toads, scorpions, geckos, and the aptly named puppies Widdle and Puke) make this book a classic that is justifiably still in print and popping up in people’s “must-read” lists nearly 60 years after it was published.

Looking for a more local read than one based in Corfu? A great place to starts is Down Underby.

Written by the always entertaining Bill Bryson, this book is the story of his travels in Australia in 2000. It’s always intriguing to see your home country through the eyes of a visitor, and even more so for me as I am recent immigrant to Australia. (More five grand Irishwoman than 10 pound pom, it must be said.)

Bryson – like me – is thoroughly smitten by the Lucky Country; “the people are cheerful, the food excellent, the beer always cold, the sun nearly always shines.” From catching the Ghan first class to getting lost in Canberra, his travels in Australia as entertaining as they are useful as a guide.

Looking for a guide for further afield written by an Australian? Try reading anthing by Peter Moore, whose trips are less first class and more an experience in hilarity. The Full Montezuma – his account of touring Central and South America (with a hapless new girlfriend who was expecting a slightly more luxurious trip) is required reading that I am taking on my own trip to Central America. Particularly enjoyable is reading about their adventures in Casa del Cockroach, battling food poisoning and local vermin, when you have decided to learn from their pain and book a hotel with running water and clean sheets.

As you can see, I prefer travel memoirs that make you laugh, not feel guilty that about enjoying a read instead of building orphanages whilst meditating on the true nature of the Infinite. What are your favourite travel tales, and why?

Of walnuts and whales – fitness books and the booklover

In addition to being a TV presenter, literary critic and very successful author, Clive James is a famously acerbic interviewer; witty, dry and possessed of a portly poise that allows off colour joking while looking dignified. He once interviewed Arnold Schwarzenegger, now the Governator of California, back then a muscle-bound movie action hero. They showed a clip of Arnie in the title role of Conan the Barbarian. At the time of filming he was a professional body-builder and the movie unashamedly showcased his bronzed and sculpted physique in a tiny leather loincloth.

Clive James, a large and bald man even then, put on a condescending smile and turned to Arnold. “Watching that scene, I have to say you reminded me of a condom stuffed with walnuts.”

Arnie looked him up and down, and quipped, “And you remind me of a walnut stuffed with condoms.”

Touché.

Having both gone back to gym and taken up running again, I am unlucky enough to know how they both feel. I’m at that aggravating stage where my muscles have bulked but I haven’t slimmed much. So, despite being healthier, I’m no appreciably smaller and my arms are starting to look like large angry hams. Still, I intend to persevere, and add being an exercise lover to being a booklover.

While the cliches suggest that all athletes are brain-dead and all authors (and booklovers too) are flabby pale whale-like creatures from sitting indoors when they should be at the gym, the truth is that many readers enjoy a bit of sport. Walk into any bookstore or have a browse here at Boomerang and you will come across an amazing profusion of books about sport and exercise, from biographies to real-life triumphs to how-tos. Boxing, cycling, the perennially popular golf; they’re all out there and more titles come out each week. For a booklover who likes to read up on things, there’s plenty of material out there.

The question is, what was an unfit booklover to read? Cross-fit is the new media darling, apparently combining multiple movements and exercise drills for maximum “real-life” benefits (because, really, who is ever going to need to peddle at a stupidly high speed for 40 minutes on a stationary bike ?). So last week I decided to give that a whirl. No Excuses by the terrifyingly buff and permanently sun-glassed Commando Steve is on the bestseller list here at Boomerang (possibly because everyone is just too scared of him to take him off it) and it seemed like an obvious place to start.

As the name suggests, this is not fitness for sooks. Commando Steve is as engaging when talking about fitness and how he got into it as he is uncompromising when people try to wiggle out of getting their fit on. And don’t think that finishing the book  gets you off the hook – he even has a website for carrying on afterwards, with a new and entertainingly challenging routine being posted every day. And, it must be said, it looks like it works. Clive James would call the Commando Steve’s physique walnut-y, although probably not to his face.

So, all fired up and inspired, I decide to try introductory boxing which my local gym combines with a cross-fit routine into 45 minutes or so of pure, unrelenting agony. Hit the bag, hit the mat, do sit-ups, push-ups, whimper. Hit the bag, sit-ups, push-ups, offer the nice man cash to allow you to stop. More sit-ups, more push-ups. Flounder like a beached whale. Cry a bit. Hit the bag. Hit the floor.

I am not naturally talented as a boxer, it appears. My preferred method is to charge in flailing madly (and completely ineffectually) and then need a bit of a sit down. Muhammad Ali famously said “float like a butterfly, sting like a bee”. My interpretation of this appears to be “float like a 3-legged drunken hippo, sting like a bubble-wrapped sponge”. And cross-fit for beginners is remarkably demanding.

Still, a few days and a few classes later, I am feeling a little more limber. It may not be time to declare this booklover buff, but I’m at least on my way to feeling a bit less like a walnut. Or a whale.

Good, Bad or Indifferent – books to flash (or not) at work

Last week I posted on the books that you would prefer not be seen reading in public. I got some great what to read and not to read tips – from not reading L. Ron Hubbard to reading Anton LeVay’s Satanic Bible to keep your seat very firmly free.

But what about those of you who don’t catch public transport? Why should you miss the fun? This week I’m looking at the workplace, and making sure your boss is getting the right idea from your reading material. Here’s a quick and dirty guide to the books to leave conspicuously on your desk – and some to keep wrapped in the recesses of your bag.

The Good : Anything by Malcolm Gladwell

If you are looking for both inspiration and fascinating read, no one does it like Gladwell. His enthusiasm for new ideas, and his ability to write about them in a way that both entertains and informs, has led to three successive New York Times #1 bestsellers, and a place in both Time Magazines 100 Most Influential People and Newsweek’s “Top 10 New Thought Leaders of the Decade.”

Why are these good books to read as well as display on your desk? Well, unlike most motivational texts, they’re enjoyable and treat you like an intelligent reader. (Anyone who has suffered through Who Moved My Cheese, we’re sorry, come back to business and motivational books, please. We have good ones now.) Gladwell’s books celebrate human achievement and entertain while informing. The phrases and ideas they have coined (“the tipping point” after the book of the same name,  and the ideas explained in Outliers of how it takes 10,000 hours of training to become a true master of something) have entered both the media and the workplace.

Not convinced? Try Blink. Not a pretty book to have on your desk, but the subject – how to master the snap judgments that we all make unconsciously and instinctively for successful decision-making – is something that workplaces value. Digest and enjoy, or just place prominently somewhere on your desk and watch the boss take notice of your big read.

The Bad : Anything by Robert Greene

While lots of business books claim to be the “only book you need to read”, Mr Greene has a stronger case than most. His writing, including the 48 Laws of Power and the Guide to Seduction, are filled with the distilled advice of other books that went before, collated into one handy spot. He cherry-picks from the wisdom of Machiavelli, Plato and Sun Tzu and from the diverse examples of leaders like Napoleon and Margaret Thatcher, as well as diplomats, captains of industry and Samurai swordsmen. Greene uses this impressive reading list to formulate themes and guidelines on what he believes transcends all the texts, and illuminate his take on the pattern behind it.

So, what’s the issue with being seen reading these? No one said that politics is nice, or that history is full of laudable behaviour. Quite simply, Robert Greene advocates following in the footsteps of great men (and women) throughout history – and being a mean and selfish sod. His guide to seduction, for example, contains guides to “picking victims” and the 48 Laws contains career advice including cheating, confounding and flattering your way to the top. Laws 7 and 17 variously are “get others to do the work for you, but always take credit” and “keep others in suspended terror: cultivate an air of unpredictability”.

His rather depressing take on humanity is that the average office is a den of inequity, lying and back-stabbing, as opposed to somewhere you go to share office gossip, send round funny emails and occasionally get some work done. Probably not one to have on your desk, unless you are trying to make your manager nervous you’re after their job.

The Indifferent – The 4 Hour Work Week by Timothy Ferriss.

Going from amorally ambitious to the other end of the scale, you have 4 Hour Work Week by Timothy Ferriss. This semi-autobiographical guide explains how to define, simply and automate your working week until you are doing – you guessed it – just 4 hours of work. It’s an enjoyable read with some good tips for those feeling trapped in the rat race on how to redefine both your job and yourself in a career-obsessed world, and details his own experience in transitioning from being an omnipresent micro-manager to an occasional drop in boss, and how productivity and morale soared when he turned up less.

(I have to admit, my first thought after reading that “if your business does better when you are not there, maybe you just a bad boss?” but according to a friend who loves it and has been following the advice, I’m being overly cynical. I’m still not convinced that is possible to be overly cynical when reading lifestyle books, but my mate is very happy with the book’s advice.)

I would finish with an admonition not to let your boss see this one in your bag, but frankly, if you’ve hit the point where you are reading this on your way to and from the office, the days of your commute are probably numbered. If you’re still commited to your job after reading it, only suggestion I can make is leave this on your boss’s desk – who know, it may give them some ideas. They could decide to step out of office life themselves, or their boss may notice and decide they’re no longer committed. Either way, it leaves a spot free for you.

I’m sure Robert Greene would approve.

Brown paper bags and iPads – disguising less literary moments

I’m not an ardent Apple lover and haven’t blasted through this month’s food money to buy an iPad, but I can see a useful application for it already.

I’m not going to go through the technical ins-and-outs of the iPad reading experience (if you have a hankering for that sort of thing, I suggest popping over to the Smell of Books, where Joel has already covered it nicely) but state one simple fact – reading through an iPad means that you’ll never again have to put up with people judging you by your book’s cover.

While what you enjoy reading should be a personal choice, reading in a public space can be an alarming reminder that not all literature is seen as equal. As with any subjective matter, opinions are divided and occasionally offered in the most insulting possible way.

A friend of mine has given up reading her Twilight books on the train, thanks to pointed glares from non-fans and one person asking her if she was capable of reading a “real book”. Much like the kids who disguise their comics, pulp serials and (ahem) educational adult material in a heavy encyclopaedia while in the school library, she now disguises them with a book sleeve of something more high-brow. Another keeps their taste for corset-busting romances firmly hidden in brown paper covers since a drunken commuter insisted they could be their semi-clothed pirate prince instead of “some poof in a book” and then proceeded to open their shirt and prance around the carraige to demonstrate.

My own habit of reading motivational and pop-psychology books has put me in cringe zone a few times when I have looked up and seen people reactions to my choice of book. These books that are worth a flick, but perhaps not without reading either on an iPad or with a plain brown paper cover.

1. He’s Just Not That Into You

It’s more a comedy than a melodrama of a book, with wonderfully down-to-earth advice but if you decide to read this on public transport you may as well place neon flashing sign over your head. And that sign says: “I have been dumped. Dramatically dumped. I am just one visual reminder (“There’s a car. George used to drive a car.”) or off-hand comment (“He said hello. George used to say hello…”) off breaking down into a torrent of tears while wailing “Why, George, WHY?”

You don’t have to use George. Insert the name of your ex, or if anyone is wearing their work ID, try bawling their name between gut-wrenching sobs just to watch them twitch. If you feel like cranking the Embarrassometer up a notch, you can turn up the next day reading He Just THINKS He’s Just Not That Into You, causing all your co-commuters to call home and check that the bunny hut is safely secured.

2.The Game by Neil Strauss

You may be engrossed by the fascinating world of the PUA’s, or Pick Up Artists, or enjoying Neil Strauss’s honest and irreverent humour but everyone looking at you thinks you are only reading it for cheat tips to the opposite sex. If you are a guy reading this, people assume you a damp-pawed and creepy type who also owns How To Pick Up Girls By Hypnosis* and tries the “there is.. .something… in your eye…” line at parties. If you are a girl reading this people assume you are a damp-pawed and creepy type who also owns How To Pick Up Girls By Hypnosis. Basically, no one is making eye contact or shaking hands with you all the way home.

3. Anything on unarmed combat, knife-fighting or ear-biting. Or How-To guides by the SAS.

On the plus side, no one will take the seat next to you for the whole trip. On the minus, those four burly armed security staff closing in on you are not doing so to offer you a chocolate muffin and a nice cup of tea. As a general tip, most commuters are fine with you reading books about horrifically bloody murders, it’s when you start reading about real-life methods of mayhem and squinting speculatively around the carraige they will decide to call the cops.

Perhaps the release of the iPad and other e-readers is a licence enjoy your guilty or gorey pleasures. Tescos reported sales of downloaded Mills & Boon titles grew 57 per cent in the five months after the Sony Reader went on sale, and with the advent of the iPad, who knows what the person next to you on the bus could be reading? You’ll just have to ask them to show you.

And if it’s How To Pick Up Girls By Hypnosis or anything on knife-fighting, I suggest keeping your eyes on their screen and smiling vaguely the whole way home.


* This book does not exist out of the science fiction series Red Dwarf, so don’t bother looking for it. At least, if it DOES exist, Boomerang Books thankfully don’t stock it.

I suggest keeping your

Judging the Book by its Book

One of my female friends, a fellow booklover with a penchant for writing short stories, has just dropped a potential boyfriend. It was all going fine until she got into his apartment but what she found – or rather didn’t find there – was a dealbreaker.

His fatal flaw? “He didn’t have any books!”

As is her habit, she went to examine his literary tastes and realised to her horror there were no bookshelves. If the eyes are the windows to the soul, then bookshelves are the backdoor to the brain, letting you in on people’s likes and dislikes and what they like to curl up with in the evening. Do they like to curl up with a classic, or dip into short stories? Do they read for humour or are they a historical fiction fan? Are you going to be fighting over the latest fiction every Sunday breakfast, or will they be happily looking up your next holiday in their Lonely Planet?

Without a set of shelves to peruse, my book-loving friend knew just one thing. She loved books. He didn’t. This was never going to work.

Even if he had had a set of books, he still could have well fallen at this first hurdle. My friend is a big believer that you are what you read. A quick look through his shelves would have told her if he was more interested professional perfectionists such as Dr Scarpetta or if he was looking for a Bella to his Edward.

“The bookshelves are good,” my friend explains. “You can’t tell what people are like from what they read in public. They might be all adoring Thomas Kinneally in public but re-reading Stephen King most evenings when they get home. You need to check which books have been thumbed the most.”

But is it fair to judge a book by its, well, book? Many people have very diverse tastes. I know my bookshelves would confuse a few people. Can we unite my copies of Lord of the Rings with Superfreakonomics? Can Roger McDonald’s Ballad of Desmond Kale share space with Stephanie Meyer’s Twilight series? Can you be a book with many different types of pages?

I’d say yes, but that’s because I will read anything. I am a literary flirt, dallying with any and all genres. I have books on politics and science sitting next to chick-lit and travelogues, fantasy titles sharing the shelves with feminism.

And it’s not just books. Magazines, newspapers, articles, the internet, the back of your t-shirt if you stand still. If you put text in front of me, it will be read. In severe cases, I read cereal boxes. I pick up books belonging to other people while in their houses and usually make a bee line for the bookshelves.

Except I’m not going to judge them, I’d going to try and sample them. I’ve never turned a date down for what I have found on their bookshelves. But if there were no bookshelves at all? I’m not so sure it could work.

Could you love a non-reader, and what books would make you decide to cancel that dinner date and just curl up with a good read?

’tis the season of the cookbook

First off, I’d like to congratulate the winners of our Facebook fan page Julie Goodwin competition. Their prize, a copy of Our Family Table, is something to be treasured – a really beautiful cooking compendium designed for building wonderful meals and memories, and signed by the first Australian Masterchef herself. Julie also took time out from her book tour to give us an interview on the process of writing the book and what she’s planning next and I, for one, am dying to hear her recipe for wonderful winter comfort food that is fettucine carbonara.

Second off, I would like to have a good whinge. Mainly about the fact that wonderful winter comfort food such as fettucine carbonara is back on the menu. Christmas is coming and the goose is getting fat, except it’s not – it’s only May but somehow I’m still already assuming a waistline of Claus-ian proportions.

Being a Northern Hemisphere girl who has relocated to Sydney, I find living in the Harbour City offers many benefits but the reversal of the seasons is not one of them. It’s weird – when everyone in the Emerald Isle is enjoying the watery sunshine and a chance to really develop their freckles, the Antipodes are battening down the hatches and readying for the onslaught of the coldest time of year.

That said, both seasons are equally brief and tepid in their commitment. There’s that joke about Irish summers – Irish people will tell you they had a lovely summer this year, it was on a Wednesday. Looking out the window here in Sydney at the rain, I’m reminded that the damp depths of the Australian winter is remarkably similar to the brief soggy high of the Irish summer

So, if it’s much of a muchness whether I’m in Canberra or Kilmacow, why am I complaining? Well, in Ireland, Christmas is in winter. Meaning that all those layers of horrid reindeer jumpers and silly paper hats hide the festive seasons effect of your midriff and by the time Summer is raising its bleary head, you’ve had a chance to shed the Christmas kilos.

But in Australia, halfway through what should be the skinniest and skimpiest season of the year, you get mugged by festive feasting. Tim Minchin may sing fondly of white wine in the sun, but the Australian Christmases I have been lucky enough to attend have starred not just wine, but cold meats, hot meat, seafood, salads, breads and pasta, potatoes and game meat, a dessert of five, gelato and beer to wash it down.

Have you tried to swim, let alone surf, after a surf and turf? You’d be better off just lying next to the lifeguard and gasping in pain and pretending to be a washed-up whale from the get-go. It’s a nightmare. I am trying to be good and eat salads now, but my body is telling me loudly and clearly that it is WINTER and it is COLD and it does not want lettuce, it wants STEW.

Which is why a quick look at the Boomerang Books bestsellers list is amusing me so much. There is 10, count ‘em, cooking books, on the list mainly based on stews and slow cooking and home-cooking. Home Cooking with Rachel Allen, One-Pot Cooking, Our Family Table and more – it’s obvious that everyone in Australia is thinking, much like me, that it’s time for some delicious home food.

I may not be eating salad, but I am not alone. ‘tis the season to cook comfort food. I’ll worry about having a skinny Christmas a little closer to the day.

Racey Reading – did you bring enough to share?

Birds do it. Bees do it. Even educated fleas do it.

But Australian Customs are reserving the right to search you if you read about it on the plane. The first question on Australian custom’s Incoming Passenger Cards has been changed recently and those of us with a taste for the racier literature may be in for an unpleasant surprise. Where once the form asked if incoming passengers if they were carrying “objectionable materials” it has now been amended to “carrying pornography”. And those answering “yes” will have their material examined by customs officials, who will presumedly make note both of well-thumbed pages and cracks in the spine where books have been worn to death.

A Customs and Border Protection spokesperson said the change was made late last year because the term “pornography” was more recognisable to travellers than the term “objectionable material”. If you are carrying depictions of the sex act, Customs want to know about it. The change of the reference to pornography was intended to make travellers aware that some forms of pornography were illegal to bring into Australia.

Think this has nothing to do with you? Think again. Many mainstream books and publications contain pornography, without necessarily containing “objectionable material”. Objectionable material, according to the Classification (Publications, Films and Computer Games) (Enforcement) Act 1995 “depicts, expresses or otherwise deals with matters of sex, drug misuse or addiction, crime, cruelty, violence or revolting or abhorrent phenomena in such a way that it offends against the standards of morality, decency and propriety generally accepted by reasonable adults”.

But the problem is, there does not appear to be an easy definition of pornography in the Classification, and most people would assume the word – as it is commmonly used – refers to graphic depictions of the sex act.

And pornography is everywhere in literature these days, by that definition. It may have been scandalous when Lady Chatterly’s Lover was tried for obscenity in 1959 but in modern writing, graphic sexual scenes are common. Chick lit is a frequent offender here, with many books from the genre from writers such as Marion Keyes containing scenes that – while appropriate to the plot and certainly not overlaboured – are reasonably graphic about sexual relations. Jodi Picoult’s soul searching novels leave no area barred and you’ll find some rude words in the phenomenally popular Eat, Pray, Love too.  A few of the giants of Fantasy and Sci-Fi – Terry Goodkind and Anthony Piers, for example – have a taste for the lewd in literature, and even non-fiction such as auto-biographies often include some very real real-life scenes.

Shirts. Real men don't need them, apparently.

And with the euphemistically named Romance being one of the top selling genres world-wide, it’s worthwhile remembering the average bodice-ripper contains more than a few scenes of bodice rippng. The more “chaste kiss” approach espoused by writers such as Barbara Cartland (a truly prolific writer who averaged a book every two weeks and still – over a career that spanned 664 novels – managed to avoid actually mentioning, you know, “it”, even once) has been replaced by more explicit texts. It’s a booming market, and its audience is 90% women; in the USA in 2008 75 million Americans read at least one romance novel that year.

So Australian Customs could be dealing with more American ladies than peddlers of filthy smut. Not to mention that people carrying what they think is serious literature – such as Bret Easton Ellis’s “American Psycho” or pretty much anything by Norman Mailer. Some books literally surprise you with a sudden sex scene. Are we meant to skip ahead to catch the danger scenes, or just hand books over to Customs and tell them to call us when they are done? Or will we be able to get near them with the many American ladies waving their historical romances and teens handing over their Anita Blake – Vampire Hunters? We’re already thoroughly vetted on the way on to the plane, do we now have to wait on our way off now if our in-flight reading contained a little raunchy?

I’m not sure what the solution to this one is. But I am pretty sure that it’s not insisting that passengers share their pornography on landing. Because, if that happens, I’m going to be reduced to reading books I know don’t contain any smut whatsoever, and if that means I may, once again, have to break out Lord of the Rings.